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Guarino v. Commissioner of Social Security

December 10, 2009

UNSUK GUARINO PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT,



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Unsuk Guarino brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB").*fn1 Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was not supported by substantial evidence and contrary to the applicable legal standards. The Commissioner argues that the decision was supported by substantial evidence and made in accordance with the correct legal standards.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision contains legal error and is not supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be granted in part and Defendant's Cross-Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied.*fn2

II. Background

Plaintiff first applied for DIB on May 5, 1998, alleging an onset date of March 25, 1997 (R. at 433, 435).*fn3 Plaintiff's application was denied on July 3, 1998 (R. at 405). Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on January 14, 1999 (R. at 413). The ALJ issued a decision on April 19, 2000, finding Plaintiff not disabled (R. at 24-35). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council on November 29, 2001 (R. at 50-52).

Plaintiff filed a second application for DIB on April 18, 2005, again alleging an onset date of March 25, 1997 (R. at 45, 74). Plaintiff alleges disability due to a pain syndrome, a cervical spine impairment, and headaches. Her application was denied initially on May 23, 2005 (R. at 45). Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on June 30, 2005 (R. at 60).

On May 23, 2007, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ (R. at 681). The ALJ considered the case de novo and, on July 18, 2007, issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled (R. at 11-17). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision in this case when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 21, 2007 (R. at 4-7). On November 30, 2007, Plaintiff filed this action.

Based on the entire record, the Court recommends remand because the ALJ failed to consider all relevant probative evidence in his decision.

III. Discussion

A. Legal Standard and Scope of Review

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 (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).

"To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). 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*fn4 to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1520.

B. Analysis

1. The Commissioner's Decision

In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to factual information as well as the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff's prior application was denied on April 19, 2000 (R. at 11); (2) The prior decision finding Plaintiff not disabled "is final and binding" (R. at 11); (3) Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act up through December 31, 2002 (R. at 13); (4) The relevant time period is April 20, 2000, the day after Plaintiff's prior final disability determination, through December 31, 2002 (R. at 11-12); (5) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the time period in question (R. at 13); (6) Plaintiff's occipital neuralgia was a medically determinable impairment; (7) Plaintiff failed to show that she had a medically determinable neck impairment, cervical spine impairment, or myofascial pain syndrome ("MPS")*fn5 (R. at 14); (8) Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments (R. at 15); (9) Plaintiff's complaints were not entirely credible (R. at 15). Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time through the date of last insured, December 31, 2002 (R. at 17).

2. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is contrary to the applicable legal standards and not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in a) failing to consider certain medical evidence contained in the record; b) assessing Plaintiff's credibility; c) failing to find Plaintiff's cervical spine impairment was severe; d) failing to find Plaintiff met ...


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