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Rushford-Spink v. Astrue

September 28, 2009

LORA J. RUSHFORD-SPINK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. INTRODUCTION

In February of 2005, Plaintiff Lora Rushford-Spink filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since October 1, 2004, due to various physical ailments and a mood disorder. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's application.

Plaintiff, through her attorney, Peter M. Margolius, Esq., commenced this action on July 30, 2008, by filing a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

On August 24, 2009, the Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket No. 12).

II. BACKGROUND

The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows. In February of 2005, Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits, alleging that she had been unable to work since October 1, 2004. (T*fn1 at 15, 232). The Commissioner initially denied the application on August 3, 2005. (T at 15, 33). Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")on October 14, 2005. (T at 31). On June 7, 2007, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before ALJ Robin Arzt in Albany, New York. (T at 227).

On September 27, 2007, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. (T at 15-24). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on May 30, 2008, when the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 3-6).

Plaintiff commenced this action by filing a Complaint on July 30, 2008. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiff, through counsel, filed a supporting Brief on December 29, 2008. (Docket No. 9). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on February 12, 2009. (Docket No. 10). Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.*fn2

For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings be granted.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir.1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir.1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); see Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir.1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir.1979).

"Substantial evidence" is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir.1982).

If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y.1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir.1984).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1520. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.*fn3

While the claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n. 5; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582 (2d Cir.1984).

The final step of the inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her physical ability, age, education, and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a person having the claimant's qualifications could perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(g); 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 25, 2005, the application date. (T at 17). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following impairments: a lower back disorder, migraine headaches, and a mood disorder, considered "severe" under the applicable Social Security Act Regulations (the "Regulations"). (T at 17). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's subjective complaints of bilateral knee disorder and bilateral elbow disorder were not medically determinable impairments. (T at 17). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or equal one of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the Regulations. (T at 17).

After reviewing the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff "has the residual functional capacity to occasionally lift and carry up to ten pounds at a time, walk and stand up to two hours out of an eight hour work day, sit up to six hours out of an eight hour work day." (T at 17). In addition, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff can "occasionally push and pull light weight objects, and occasionally bend and stoop." (T at 17). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work. (T at 17). Further, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is able to "understand, remember and carry out simple instructions, make judgments that are commensurate with the functions of unskilled work." (T at 18).

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as a cashier because of her inability to stand on her feet for a full work day. (T at 23). However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff, based on her residual functional capacity, age, education (high school equivalency), and work experience, can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (T at 23). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not under a "disability," as that term is defined under the Act, and denied the application for benefits. (T at 23).

As noted above, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on May 30, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied ...


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