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Johnson v. Astrue

March 23, 2010



I. Introduction

Plaintiff Terrilee Johnson challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not entitled to disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges she has been disabled since July 9, 2003, because ofpain and limitations from a lower back injury. Plaintiff met the disability insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2008.

II. Background

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on February 24, 2004*fn1 . Her application was denied initially and, under the prototype model of handling claims without requiring a reconsideration step, Plaintiff was permitted to appeal directly to the ALJ. See 65 Fed. Reg. 81553 (Dec. 26, 2000). Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was held via video teleconference on April 5, 2005, before ALJ Steven A. De Monbreum, at which time Plaintiff and her attorney appeared. A vocational expert also testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on May 5, 2005, issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. On August 17, 2005, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.

On October 14, 2005, Plaintiff filed a Civil Complaint challenging Defendant's final decision and requesting the Court toreview the decision of the ALJ pursuant to Section 205(g) and 1631(c) (3) of the Act, modify the decision of Defendant, and grant DIB benefits to Plaintiff.*fn2 The Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's complaint on December 7, 2005, requesting the Court todismiss Plaintiff's complaint. Plaintiff submitted a Memorandum of Law ("Plaintiff's Brief") on February 15, 2006. On March 13, 2006, Defendant filed a Memorandum of Law in Support of the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings ("Defendant's Brief")*fn3 pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After full briefing, the Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement.

For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds no reversible error and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Thus, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

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 and 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 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, 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).

"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 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 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 and 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. § 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

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 (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).

B. Analysis

1. 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 met the disability insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on July 9, 2003, and acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through at least December 31, 2008 (R. at 23);*fn5 (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 9, 2003 (R. at 23); (3) The medical evidence establishes that Plaintiff suffers lumbar degenerative disc disease and is status post coccygectomy,*fn6 impairments that are "severe," but do not meet or equal the criteria of any impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 (R. at 23); (4) Plaintiff's statements concerning her impairments and pain and their impact on her ability to work are not fully credible (R. at 23); (5) Plaintiff is able to lift up to ten pounds maximum, can sit for six hours in a workday; can push and pull ten pounds occasionally with her lower extremities; can stand and walk two hours in a workday; can perform all postural activities (climb stairs/ramps, balance, kneel, crawl, and stoop/bend) occasionally, except for climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds, which she can never perform; andshould also avoid cold temperature extremes, vibrations, and hazards (R. at 23-24); (6) Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work (R. at 24); (7) Plaintiff's capacity for a full range of sedentary work*fn7 is diminished by the limitations cited in 5 above (R. at 24); (8) On July 9, 2003, Plaintiff was within a few weeks of becoming38 years old, a "younger individual age 18-44" (R. at 24); (9) Plaintiff has at least a high school education (R. at 24); (10) Plaintiff has semi-skilled work experience, and limited transferable work skills (R. at 24); (11) Based on an exertional capacity for sedentary work, and the Plaintiff's age, educational background, and work experience, Section 404.1569 and the Medical-Vocational Rules 201.28 and 201.29, Table 1, Appendix 2, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 directs a conclusion of "not disabled" (R. at 24); (12) Although Plaintiff is unable to perform the full range of sedentary work, she is capable of making an adjustment to jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy as set forth herein. A finding of "not disabled" is therefore reached within the framework of the above-cited medical-vocational rules (R. at 24); and (13) Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from July 9, 2003, through the date of this decision (R. at 24). Ultimately, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as set forth in sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act (R. at 24).

2. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff challenges the decision of the ALJ on the basis that it is not supported by the substantial evidence of record. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges (a) the ALJ failed to give controlling weight to the opinions of her treating physicians, and instead relied primarily on the opinion of a State agency examining physician, when making the determination that Plaintiff was not under a disability, (b) the ALJ erred in his credibility analysis because (i) he did not give specific and sufficient reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's credibility, and (ii) he did not consider Plaintiff's record of seeking treatment for her pain, and (c) the ALJ failed to consider that Plaintiff cannot ...

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