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Nix v. Astrue

October 22, 2009

TERESA A. NIX, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Teresa A. Nix ("plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act ("The Act") seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Karl Alexander denying her application for benefits was not supported by substantial evidence in the record and was contrary to applicable legal standards.

The plaintiff moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c) and 42 U.S.C. 405(g) seeking to reverse the Commissioner's decision or, in the alternative, remand to the Commissioner for reconsideration of the evidence. The Commissioner cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) on the grounds that the findings of fact of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons discussed below, I hereby deny the Commissioner's cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings, grant plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and remand this claim to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

BACKGROUND

On July 16, 2004, the plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") Benefits under sections 216(i) and 223(a) of the Social Security Act, alleging disability due to back disorder (discogenic and degenerative) and headaches, with an onset date of December 8, 2003. The plaintiff's application was denied at the initial and reconsideration disability determination levels. The plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an ALJ, and appeared before Judge Karl Alexander with a non-attorney representative on June 20, 2006.

In a decision dated July 20, 2006, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") when the Social Security Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 30, 2007. On May 30, 2007, the plaintiff filed this action.

Discussion

I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

Title 42, section 405(g) of the United States Code grants jurisdiction to Federal District Courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 320 (1976). Additionally, the section directs that when considering such a claim, the Court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 181 (2d Cir. 1998); see also Williams v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 06-2019-cv, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 9396, at *3 (2d Cir. Apr. 24, 2007).

Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Metropolitan Stevedore Co. v. Rambo, 521 U.S. 121, 149 (1997)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Section 405(g) thus limits this Court's scope of review to two inquiries: (i) whether the Commissioner's conclusions are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole, and (ii) whether the Commissioner's conclusions are based upon an erroneous legal standard. Green-Younger v. Barnhard, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003); see also Wagner v. Secretary of Health & Human Serv., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990)(holding that review of the Secretary's decision is not de novo and that the Secretary's findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence).

The plaintiff and the Commissioner both move for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) and Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Section 405(g) provides that the District Court "shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. §405(g)(2009). Under Rule 12(c), judgment on the pleadings may be granted where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988). If, after a review of the pleadings, the Court is convinced that "the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [her] claim which would entitle [her] to relief," judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

A District Court should order payment of Social Security disability benefits in cases where the record contains persuasive proof of disability and remand for further evidentiary proceedings would serve no further purpose. See Carroll v. Secretary of Health and Human Serv., 705 F.2d 638, 644 (2d Cir. 1981). The goal of this policy is "to shorten the often painfully slow process by which disability determinations are made." Id. Because this Court finds that (1) the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence and (2) the record contains substantial evidence of disability such that further evidentiary proceedings would serve no further purpose, judgment on the pleadings is hereby granted for the plaintiff.

II. Standard for Entitlement to SSDI Benefits

Under the Social Security Act, a disability is defined as the "inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months..." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A) (concerning Old-Age, Survivors', and Disability Insurance); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A)(concerning SSI payments). An individual will only be considered "under a disability" if his impairment is so severe that he is both unable to do his previous work and unable to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. §§423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(b).

"Substantial gainful work" is defined as "work that exists in significant numbers either in the region where the individual lives or in several regions of the country." Id. Work may be considered "substantial" even if it is done on a part-time basis, if less money is earned, or if work responsibilities are lessened from previous employment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.972(a). Work may be considered "gainful" if it is the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b) and 416.972(b). Furthermore, "substantial gainful work" is considered available to an individual regardless of whether such work exists in his immediate area, whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he were to apply for work. 42 U.S.C. §§423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, SSA regulations require the ALJ to perform the following five-step sequential evaluation:

(1) if the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, he is not disabled;

(2) if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, his impairment(s) must be "severe" before he can be found disabled;

(3) if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a "severe" impairment(s) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months, and if the impairment(s) meets or medically equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry;

(4) if the claimant's impairment(s) do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the next inquiry is whether the claimant's impairment(s) prevent him from doing his past relevant work, if not, he is not disabled;

(5) if the claimant's impairment(s) prevent him from performing his past relevant work, and other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors, he is not disabled.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v) and 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v)(2009). After determining that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act under sections 216(i) and 223, the ALJ performed the required five-step evaluation and determined that: (i) the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of December 8, 2003; (ii) the plaintiff's cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease/degenerative arthritis and headaches were "severe" under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); (iii) the plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;(iv) the plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work as a legal secretary; and (v) the plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of sedentary work.*fn1

III. The ALJ's Decision to Deny Plaintiff Benefits is not Supported by Substantial Evidence Contained in the Record, and Contains Errors of Law

A. The ALJ failed to make adequate findings and articulate adequate reasons to support his determination that the plaintiff lacked credibility.

In making his RFC determination, the ALJ stated that he "did not find the [plaintiff] to be entirely credible based on some of her statements and other evidence in the record." (Tr. at 18; emphasis mine). He went on to provide only two examples to substantiate his finding. First, he noted that "although [the plaintiff] complains of essentially constant headaches it was noted ... during a neurologic consultation examination ... that the [plaintiff] does get 'some headaches.' This does not indicate constant headaches." (Tr. at 18). Second, after noting that the plaintiff had a normal MRI of the brain and abnormal spinal MRIs,*fn2 the ALJ stated "[t]he [plaintiff] reported that she cooks three times a week, does light housework as needed, does laundry three to four times a week, goes shopping a few times a week, cares for her children, goes to church and socializes with friends. These activities are not indicative of total disability." (Tr. at 18). The ALJ then concluded "[f]or the foregoing reasons [he] does not find the claimant to be entirely credible and does not fully accept her statements concerning her symptoms and limitations. The ...


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