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Holland v. Commissioner of Social Security

November 12, 2009

SHIRLEY A. HOLLAND, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCurn, Senior District Judge

Memorandum, Decision and Order

I. Introduction

By this action, plaintiff Shirley A. Holland ("plaintiff") timely seeks judicial review of a final decision by defendant, Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits for lack of disability, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Presently before the court is a motion for judgment on the pleadings by plaintiff, and a cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings by defendant, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). Plaintiff seeks an order granting her motion for judgment on the pleadings with a determination that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, or an order remanding this matter to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for further consideration. The Commissioner opposes, and seeks an order affirming its decision. The parties have filed their respective briefs, including the Administrative Record on Appeal, and the matter has been submitted and considered without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's finding that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is remanded for further consideration consistent with this memorandum, decision and order.

II. Procedural Background

Plaintiff initially applied for SSDI and SSI benefits on August 13, 2001. (R. 96-98).*fn1 The application was denied, and plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on February 24, 2003. (R. 456-515). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 10, 2003, after which plaintiff sought Appeals Council review. (R. 42-52). The Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ for another hearing on March 23, 2004. (R. 516-544). On November 10, 2004 the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled, which became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 4, 2005 when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (R. 20-29). This timely civil action followed.

III. Factual Background

Plaintiff Holland, born March 29, 1955, was 49 at the time of the Commissioner's decision at issue here. (R. 27, 93). Plaintiff has a high school education, and has past relevant work as a certified nurse's aide ("CNA"), laborer at a linen factory, and cashier. (R. 157). Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work due to a disability since May 30, 2001. (R. 96). According to plaintiff, several medical conditions keep her from working, including arthritis, chest pain and depression. (R. 156). The medical evidence of record will be subsequently addressed where relevant.

IV. Discussion

This court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo, but instead "must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 384 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal citation omitted). See also Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004). When determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, a court evaluates the record as a whole. See Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 121 (2d Cir. 2000) (internal citation omitted). "Substantial evidence" is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Halloran, 362 F.3d at 31 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420 (1971)). "An ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Gravel v. Barnhart, 360 F.Supp.2d 442, 444-445 (N.D.N.Y. 2005) (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984)). When reviewing a determination by the Commissioner, a district court, in its discretion, "shall [...] enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner [...], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See also 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). See also Butts, 388 F.3d at 385.

An individual is "disabled" for purposes of his or her eligibility for SSDI or SSI if he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c. See also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d). The Commissioner may deem an individual applicant for SSDI or SSI to be disabled only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c; § 423(d).

SSA regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process, by which the Commissioner is to determine whether an applicant for SSI is disabled pursuant to the aforementioned statutory definition. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals aptly summarizes this process as follows:

The first step of this process requires the Secretary to determine whether the claimant is presently employed. If the claimant is not employed, the Secretary then determines whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" that limits her capacity to work. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has an impairment that is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. When the claimant has such an impairment, the Secretary will find the claimant disabled. However, if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the Secretary must determine, under the fourth step, whether the claimant possesses the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the Secretary determines whether the claimant is capable of performing any other work. If the claimant satisfies her burden of proving the requirements in the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the Secretary to prove in the fifth step that the claimant is capable of working.

Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59, 62 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996)).

Here, the ALJ first found that plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity at any time since her alleged disability onset date. (R. 21). Next, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's major depressive disorder was not severe, but that she had severe physical impairments, including cervical spondylosis at C5-6 and C6-7, cervical radiculopathy and lumbar spine degenerative changes. (R. 23-24). The ALJ next found that plaintiff's physical impairments were not listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1. Finally, the ALJ concluded that while plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, (R. 25), the exertional requirements of her past relevant work as a nurse's aide are heavy in nature and therefore exceed her current RFC, (R. 27). Taking into consideration plaintiff's age, education and past relevant work experience, the ALJ concluded that because plaintiff "can perform ...


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