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Sorensen v. Commissioner of Social Security

January 7, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe District Court Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Uriah Sorensen challenges the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of disability insurance benefits (DIB) and seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) Upon reviewing the administrative record and carefully considering the arguments, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

II. Background

On March 3, 2003, Sorensen filed an application for DIB under the Social Security Act (SSA), alleging disability caused by thoracic and cervical disk disease beginning on January 28, 2003. (Tr.*fn1 at 25, 61-63; see also Pl. Br. at 3, Dkt. No. 6.) After his application was denied, Sorensen requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on April 29, 2004. (Tr. at 25, 41.) On June 14, 2004, the ALJ issued a decision denying the requested benefits, which became the Commissioner's final decision upon the Social Security Administration Appeals Council's denial of review. (Tr. at 4-6, 22-31.)

Sorensen commenced the present action by filing a complaint on May 5, 2006, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Dkt. No. 1.) The Commissioner filed an answer and a certified copy of the administrative transcript. (Dkt. Nos. 4, 5.) Each party, seeking judgment on the pleadings, filed a brief. (Dkt. Nos. 6, 8.)

III. Contentions

Sorensen contends that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or the appropriate legal standards. Specifically, Sorensen claims that the ALJ: (1) failed to follow the treating physician rule; (2) failed to make a credibility determination and thereby improperly discounted Sorensen's allegations of pain; (3) improperly assessed Sorensen's residual functional capacity (RFC); and (4) failed to sustain her burden under the fifth step of the SSA guidelines' five-step analysis by posing incomplete hypothetical questions to the vocational expert. (See generally Pl. Br., Dkt. No. 6.) The Commissioner counters that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.

IV. Facts

The evidence in this case is undisputed and the court adopts the parties' factual recitations. (See Pl. Br. at 3-11, Dkt. No. 6; Def. Br. at 1, Dkt. No. 8.)

V. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. 405(g) is well established and will not be repeated here. For a full discussion of the standard, the court refers the parties to its previous opinion in Christiana v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 1:05-CV-932, 2008 WL 759076, at *1-2 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 19, 2008).

B. Five-Step Disability Determination

A plaintiff seeking disability benefits is disabled under the SSA if he can establish an "inability 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 12 months...." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).

The Commissioner uses a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The Second Circuit has outlined this process:

[I]f the commissioner determines (1) that the claimant is not working, (2) that he has a 'severe impairment,' (3) that the impairment is not one listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations that conclusively requires a determination of disability, and (4) that the claimant is not capable of continuing in his prior type of work, the Commissioner must find him disabled if (5) there is not another type of work the claimant can do.

See Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). The first step under this process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If so, he is not considered disabled. However, if he is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant is found to suffer from a severe impairment, step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). The claimant is presumptively disabled if his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. See Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the fourth step requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant's RFC prevents him from performing past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f). At step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can do any other work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

"The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, while the [Commissioner] bears the burden on the last step." See Green-Younger, 335 F.3d at 106 (citation omitted). In other words, once the claimant has met his burden, the ALJ can deny benefits only by showing, with specific reference to medical evidence, that the claimant can perform some less demanding work. See White v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 910 F.2d 64, 65 (2d Cir. 1990); see also Ferraris, 728 F.2d at 584. In making this showing, the ALJ must consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, past work experience, and transferability of skills, to determine if he can perform ...

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