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Pitts v. Astrue

January 31, 2010

EDREMA M. PITTS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court

DECISION AND ORDER

1. Plaintiff Edrema M. Pitts challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since October 1, 2004, due to back, neck, and leg pain. (R. at 83, 480.) Plaintiff contends that her impairments render her unable to work and, therefore, asserts that she is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income benefits ("SSI") on June 21, 2005. (R. at 83-85, 480-83.) Her application was denied initially, after which she requested a hearing before an ALJ. That hearing took place on March 18, 2008. (R. at 486-507.) The ALJ considered Plaintiff's case de novo, and on May 8, 2008, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. (R. at 13-26.) On July 25, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 3-5.) Plaintiff filed the current civil action challenging Defendant's final decision on September 24, 2008.*fn1

3. The parties subsequently filed Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings.*fn2 After full briefing, this Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement on July 17, 2009. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied.

4. 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 and Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. 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 that which 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).

5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of 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 will 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 and Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

6. 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. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

7. This five-step process is detailed below:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam) (quotations in original); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. 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, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his 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. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed. 2d 66 (1983).

9. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2004 (R. at 15); (2) Plaintiff's impairments are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 15-16)*fn3 ; (3) Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal an impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 404 (R. at 16-18); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with certain restrictions (R. at 18-24); and (5) although Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she is able to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy (R. at 25-26). The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. at 26.)

10. Plaintiff advances seven challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to re-contact Drs. Meliton Tanhehco, Jennifer Adamson, David Bagnall and Eugene Gosy "for more specific medical interpretations of why Plaintiff was 'disabled.'" (Pl.'s Mem., p. 8.)*fn4 Plaintiff focuses her challenge on the ALJ's treatment of the opinions of Drs. Adamson and Tanhehco. In particular, Plaintiff contends that the "well founded opinions" of Drs. Adamson and Tanhehco were entitled to great weight, and that they should have been recontacted before the ALJ cursorily rejected them. (Id. p. 7.) Additionally, Plaintiff assumes that the ALJ's basis for rejection was his inability to ascertain the bases of the opinions. (Id.) ("If the ALJ was unable to ascertain the basis for these opinions, he should have recontacted . . .").

Recontacting medical providers is necessary when the ALJ cannot make a disability determination based on the evidence of record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(e). Additional evidence or clarification is sought when there is a conflict or ambiguity that must be resolved, when the medical reports lack necessary information, or when the reports are not based on medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 20 C.F.R. § ...


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