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Williams v. Commissioner of Social Security

June 7, 2010

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff appeals from a denial of disability insurance benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). The action is one brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) a to review the final determination of the Commissioner.

On August 6, 1998, plaintiff, then forty years old, filed an application for disability insurance benefits, which was denied initially and on reconsideration. (T. 31-42, 215-217). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on April 14, 2000 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Seymour Rayner. (T. 43, 706-729). The ALJ issued a decision on May 11, 2000, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 767-774). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision, which was granted by the Appeals Council on August 24, 2001. (T. 54-58, 97-99).

While Appeals Council review was pending, plaintiff protectively filed an application for Social Security Income benefits on July 25, 2000, which was also denied initially and on reconsideration. (T. 33, 100-103, 588-602). Plaintiff requested a hearing, and her DIB and SSI claims were consolidated. (T. 143). A hearing was held on March 4, 2002 before ALJ John Costello. On March 26, 2002, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claims. (T. 143-151, 667-705). On January 2, 2003, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review of that decision, finding that the ALJ had failed to examine the weight and potential impact of evidence concerning plaintiff's right knee and back pain, alcohol abuse, depression and personality disorder on her RFC, and remanded the matter for rehearing. (T. 152, 177-180).

On May 21, 2003, plaintiff appeared at a third hearing before ALJ Costello, at which she was represented by counsel. (T. 603-666). The ALJ again denied her claims by a decision dated June 26, 2003. (T. 19-30). On April 2, 2004, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of this third decision. (T. 9-15). Plaintiff thereafter appealed to this Court, submitting new medical evidence of disability, primarily a May 2004 computer tomography myelogram (CT scan) which appeared to show a progressively worsening spinal condition. (Tr. 889-891). On April 3, 2006, the district court affirmed the Commissioner's final decision that plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of entitlement to disability insurance benefits ("DIB") or supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. See Williams v. Commissioner, 423 F. Supp. 2d 77 (W.D.N.Y. 2006). Plaintiff appealed, and on April 24, 2007, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the matter, finding that although the ALJ's underlying determination that plaintiff was not disabled was supported by substantial evidence in the record, remand was warranted for the purpose of considering the May 2004 myelogram, which had post-dated the ALJ's decision. (T. 781-787). See Williams v. Commissioner, 236 Fed. Appx. 641 (2d Cir. 2007).

On February 14, 2008, ALJ James Dombeck held an additional hearing, at which plaintiff appeared and testified. (T. 743-765). After considering the case de novo, on March 28, 2008, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision. Specifically, the ALJ found that the newly-submitted medical evidence established plaintiff's disability for purposes of SSI eligibility as of May 12, 2004. However, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not entitled to DIB because her insured status requirements had expired on December 21, 2003. The ALJ also found no basis to disturb the June 2003 decision, which related to plaintiff's eligibility for SSI during a prior time period, for which no new medical evidence had been submitted. (T. 733-742.) This fourth ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff now appeals.

The Commissioner has moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, on the grounds that the ALJ's March 28, 2008 decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record. (Dkt. #38). The plaintiff has cross moved to "expedite" the Court's disposition of her case. (Dkt. #39). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted, the complaint is dismissed, and plaintiff's motion to expedite is denied as moot.

DISCUSSION

In determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Ac, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See 20 CFR §404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two, and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is "severe" within the meaning of the Act, e.g., that imposes significant restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 CFR §404.1520(c). If not, the analysis concludes with a finding of "not disabled." If so, the ALJ continues to step three.

At step three, the ALJ examines whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. If the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and meets the durational requirement (20 CFR §404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, analysis continues to step four, where the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is the ability to perform physical or metal work activities on a sustained basis, notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 CFR §404.1520(e), (f). Then, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's RFC permits her to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled, by presenting evidence demonstrating that the claimant "retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy" in light of her age, education, and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir.1999) (quoting Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 604 (2d Cir.1986)). See 20 CFR §404.1560(c).

The Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir.2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). "The Court carefully 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.'" Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) quoting Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 33 (2d Cir.1997). Still, "it is not the function of a reviewing court to decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled." Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir.1999). "Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [this Court] will not substitute our judgment for that of the Commissioner." Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002).

ALJ Dombeck's findings are set forth in a ten-page decision analyzing both plaintiff's prior claims of disability, and the more recent medical evidence of disability submitted by plaintiff after the initial decisions were rendered. The decision provides an overview of the prior findings, reviews all of the newly-submitted evidence, and includes detailed findings of fact. Upon review of the record, I believe that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards, and that his finding that plaintiff has not established entitlement to SSI for any period prior to May 12, 2004, is supported by substantial evidence.

Specifically, I find that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion, which is entirely consistent with the opinions and medical evidence of plaintiff's treating and examining physicians, that prior to May 12, 2004, plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of light work. During that time, plaintiff had the ability to lift, carry, push or pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, to sit, stand or walk for six hours in an eight hour day, with occasional stooping, bending or stair climbing, fair ability to work with others, good concentration, persistence and pace, and with limitations on repetitive lifting. In light of those limitations and based upon the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ properly concluded that plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a short-order cook, and further could work as a cafeteria attendant and a cashier II. (T. 740). Indeed, all of these findings were reviewed and affirmed by the Second Circuit in its April 24, 2007 decision remanding the matter solely for consideration of the newly-submitted evidence from in and around May 2004. See Williams, 236 Fed. Appx. 641, 644 ("the ALJ's determination was supported by substantial evidence").

I also concur with the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff eventually became disabled, on or around May 12, 2004. The ALJ considered plaintiff's newly-submitted medical evidence, particularly the May 11, 2004 myelogram showing spinal epidural lipomatosis ("SEL") -- a condition which causes narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of neural structures -- exacerbated by morbid obesity, which the ALJ determined constituted a severe impairment not meeting or equaling a listed impairment. Based on that evidence, the ALJ found that beginning May 12, 2004, plaintiff's RFC was limited to sedentary work as defined in 20 CF 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), and further that she would be required to use a cane as needed, could stoop, bend and climb stairs only occasionally, and required frequent, indeterminate breaks throughout an eight hour day. In fixing May 12, 2004 as the onset date, the ALJ first found that the plaintiff's newly-submitted evidence established a diagnosis of SEL. The ALJ then searched the record for the earliest evidence of onset. The earliest record evidence of SEL appeared in a May 11, 2004 myelogram record which, for the first time and in contrast to prior imaging tests, showed multilevel SEL resulting in central canal stenosis and bilateral facet disease. (T. 859). The ALJ also credited plaintiff's allegations regarding her symptoms and limitations during that time period, and noted that other medical records reflected a slow, gradual worsening of plaintiff's condition from the May 11, 2004 myelogram forward. (T. 739). SEL can be alleviated and cured through weight loss, and to that effect the ALJ noted that plaintiff's treating physician had recommended that she undergo a ...


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