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Pittman v. Astrue

March 31, 2010


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


1. Plaintiff Melinda Pittman 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 February 1, 1996 due to bi-polar disorder, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.(R. at 46, 53.) Plaintiff contends that her impairments render her unable to work and, therefore, argues that she is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on June 1, 2004. (R. at 19, 46-49.) Her application was denied initially (R. at 32), after which she requested a hearing before an ALJ (R. at 44). That hearing took place on June 19, 2007.

(R. at 627-701.) The ALJ considered Plaintiff's case de novo, and on January 23, 2007, issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. (R. at 16-31.) On May 30, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 13-15.) Plaintiff filed the current civil action challenging Defendant's final decision on November 21, 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. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's 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 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 & 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 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, and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled. 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987).

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 is 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 1, 2004 (R. at 21); (2) Plaintiff's "chronic and severe polysubstance abuse including illegal drugs and medications, allegedly in remission since December 31, 2006; bipolar disorder, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and back discomfort" are severe impairments (R. at 21-22) (parentheses in original); (3) Plaintiff's "impairments, including the substance use disorders, meet section 12.09 of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)), with 12.04 and 12.06 as reference listings," but cannot form the basis of a disability finding; rather, if Plaintiff stopped her substance abuse, she would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments (R. at 22-24) (parentheses in original); (4) if Plaintiff stopped her substance abuse, she would not have the residual functional capacity ("RFC") toperform "the full range of medium work" (R. at 30) with additional mental health restrictions (R. at 24-29)*fn3 ; and (5) although Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work even if she stopped the substance abuse (R. at 29), based on her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, Plaintiff would be capable of adjusting to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy in the event she discontinues the substance abuse. (R. at 29-30). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from June 1, 2004, through July 23, 2007, the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 31.)

10. Plaintiff advances three challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, she argues that the ALJ erred by finding her drug abuse and alcoholism ("DA&A")*fn4 constitute a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. (Docket No. 15, Pl's Mem. pp. 14-16.) According to Plaintiff, there is no evidence indicating that she suffered from DA&A at the time the ALJ rendered his decision and, in support, she claims that the ALJ failed to cite to any medical opinion diagnosing "DA&A," which postdates her June 1, 2004 application for SSI benefits. (Pl's Mem. pp. 14-15.) Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ was not able to distinguish ...

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