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Reams v. Astrue

March 31, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Block, Senior District Judge


Plaintiff Darryl Reams ("Reams") seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Both parties move for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(c). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and Reams's motion is denied.


On February 1, 2007, Reams, a former United States Postal Service letter carrier, applied for DIB, alleging that he was disabled due to cardiac problems, anemia, and a torn tendon in his right foot. After his application was denied, he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was held on November 14, 2008.

In a decision dated December 16, 2008, the ALJ applied the familiar five-step process.*fn1 The ALJ found, at step one, that Reams had "not engaged in substantial gainful activity since [his] alleged onset date," A.R. at 13;*fn2 at step two, that he had severe impairments, namely "congenital heart disease, obesity, and status post torn posterior tibial tendon, right foot," id.; and at step three, that his impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for any listed impairment, see id.

At step four, the ALJ assessed Reams's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), finding that Reams could "sit at least six hours within an 8-hour workday," though he was "limited to standing/walking [for] 2 hours in an eight-hour workday and to low stress work," that he was "able to occasionally lift/carry twenty pounds, frequently lift carry 10 pounds[, and] push/pull with the same limitations as lift/carry." Id. at 14. The ALJ further found that Reams "must avoid climbing ladders/ropes/scaffold[s]," though he "is able to perform other postural movements occasionally," and that he "must avoid temperature extremes." Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Reams was "unable to perform any past relevant work"because his RFC limited him "to perform[ing] the demands of light exertion level work," subject to the various restrictions previously listed. Id.

Finally, at step five the ALJ elicited the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"). The VE testified that"the definition of light [work] includes standing up to six hours in an eight-hour day," id. at 48; that Reams had transferable work skills, id. at 46; and that Reams was capable of performing sedentary jobs which existed in the national and regional economies. Id. In spite of this testimony, the ALJ applied Reams's age, education, work experience, and RFC to Table Number Two in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (the "Light Work Grid"), Rules 202.22 and 202.15, and found that Reams was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 20.

The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on June 1, 2009, when the Appeals Council denied Reams's request for review. This action followed.


"In reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner, a district court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 384 (2d Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

Under the five-step analysis for evaluating disability claims under Social Security regulations, the burden of proof is on the claimant for steps (1) through (4). However, "[a]t step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform." Butts, 388 F.3d at 381 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560).

Reams argues that the ALJ erred (1) by failing to consider the totality of his conditions, including obesity, in assessing whether Reams's impairments were equivalent to a listed impairment at step three, and (2) by finding that Reams possessed the RFC to perform light work. The Court addresses each in turn.

A. The ALJ's Step Three Determination

Reams's argument regarding the ALJ's step three determination fails for two reasons. First, the administrative record makes clear that the ALJ specifically addressed whether Reams's impairments, considered collectively with a focus on his obesity, "medically equaled" a listed impairment. After detailing Reams's medical history, the ALJ noted that "medical evidence revealed that eventually [Reams] had no signs of congestive heart failure or other heart symptoms" and that "no treating or examining source indicated [that his] obesity affects the clamant's cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, respiratory or other systems." A.R. at 14. Considering the "musculoskeletal, respiratory, and mental listing[s,]" in light of Reams's cardiac history and obesity, the ALJ determined that "[t]he evidence establishes [that Reams] has impairments[,] his ...

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