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Garrison v. Commissioner of Social Security

June 7, 2010

EDWARD GARRISON, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. INTRODUCTION

In November of 2004, Plaintiff Edward Garrison, Jr. filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since March 1, 2003, due to physical and mental impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's application.

Plaintiff commenced this action pro se on September 23, 2008, by filing a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

On May 10, 2010, the Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket No. 16).

II. BACKGROUND

The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits and DIB on November 29, 2004, alleging disability beginning on March 1, 2003. (T at 79-99).*fn1 The applications were denied initially on May 12, 2005. (T at 30-35). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (T at 36). A hearing was held in Albany, New York on January 22, 2007, before ALJ Thomas P. Zolezzi. (T at 305). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (T at 308-339). A further hearing was held in Albany on February 27, 2007, at which time the ALJ took additional testimony from Plaintiff, who appeared with counsel, and also heard testimony from a vocational expert. (T at 342-372). On April 16, 2007, ALJ Zolezzi issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. (T at 10-23). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on July 25, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 3-6).

Plaintiff, acting pro se, timely commenced this action on September 23, 2008. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on February 27, 2009. (Docket No. 13). The Commissioner filed a Brief on March 26, 2010. (Docket No. 18). On May 25, 2010, Attorney Michael L. Bonser of the Zappone & Fiore Law Firm, filed a Brief on behalf of Plaintiff. (Docket No. 20). The Brief was dated January 4, 2010, was received by the Clerk of the Court on January 8, 2010, and served on the Commissioner on or before that date. The delay between receipt of Plaintiff's Brief and filing was caused by the fact that his new attorney was not yet admitted to practice before this Court.

Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.*fn2

For the reasons that follow, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner's motion be granted, Plaintiff's motion be denied, and that this case be dismissed.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

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 the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir.1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); 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).

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 & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir.1984).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1520. 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, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.*fn3

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 the inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her 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. §§ 416.920(g); 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2005. (T at 12). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset of disability, March 1, 2003. (T at 12). He concluded that Plaintiff had the following impairments considered "severe" under the Act: obesity, right carpal tunnel syndrome post carpal tunnel release, arthritis, herniated nucleus pulposus, depression, and impulse control disorder. (T at 12).

However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled on of the impairments set forth in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I (the "Listings"). (T at 15).

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform simple, entry level light work with numerous restrictions. (T at 15). He found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (T at 20). Considering Plaintiff's age (32 on the alleged onset date), education (limited), and residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (T at 21). As such, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as defined under the Act and was therefore not entitled to benefits. (T at 23).

As noted above, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on July 25, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied ...


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