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Evans v. Astrue

March 7, 2010

ANTWAN EVANS, 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 Antwan Evans challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled due to chronic lumbar strain, intervertebral disc syndrome, and hip pain since June 15, 2005. (R. at 111-12.) Plaintiff contends that his impairments render him unable to work. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on May 9, 2006. (R. at 78-80.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied, prompting Plaintiff to request a hearing before an ALJ. (R. at 53-54.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on June 9, 2008, at which time Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (R. at 418-444.) The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on July 24, 2008, issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. (R. at 8-19.) On October 21, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 3-5.) Plaintiff filed this action challenging Defendant's final decision on December 9, 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 20, 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 & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed 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 & 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 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. Although the claimant has the burden of proof on 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 June 15, 2005 (R. at 13); (2) Plaintiff's intervertebral disc syndrome, right hip trochanteric bursitis, right SI dysfunction with pseudoradicular symptoms in the right lower extremity, and chronic lumbosacral sprain/strain secondary to congenitally short pedicles, disc bulging, and stenosis constitute "severe" impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 13); (3) Plaintiff's medically-determinable impairments do not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 (R. at 13); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with certain restrictions (R. at 14); (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, but based on his age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy which he could perform (R. at 17-18). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Act from June 15, 2005, through July 24, 2008, the date of his decision. (R. at 18-19.)

10. Plaintiff advances five challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC because there is no medical evidence or testimony to support the finding that he is capable of performing the full range of sedentary work. (Pl.'s Mem., Docket No. 6, pp. 4-9.) Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ ignored his statement that he could not stoop. (Pl.'s Mem., pp. 8-9.)

As an initial matter, the ALJ never found that Plaintiff is capable of performing the full range of sedentary work. Rather, by virtue of the limitations imposed on Plaintiff when assessing his RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is capable of performing only a limited range of sedentary work. (R. at 14.)*fn3 In fact, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's "ability to perform all or substantially ...


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