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Davies v. Astrue

June 17, 2010



I. Introduction

Plaintiff John Davies brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB").*fn1

II. Background

Plaintiff applied for DIB on March 21, 2005, alleging an onset date of January 15, 2004 (R. at 29-A).*fn2 Plaintiff alleges disability due to various back impairments. His application was denied initially on April 20, 2005. Id. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on June 7, 2005 (R. at 49).

On September 25, 2006, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ (R. at 189-208). The ALJ considered the case de novo and, on December 16, 2006, issued a partially favorable decision finding Plaintiff disabled on June 20, 2006, but not prior to that date (R. at 19-29). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision in this case when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 9, 2008 (R. at 3-5). On October 17, 2008, Plaintiff filed this action. The relevant time period for this case is from Plaintiff's alleged onset date, January 15, 2004, through the ALJ's finding of disability on June 20, 2006.

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.*fn3

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

The Commissioner has established afive-step sequential evaluation process*fn4 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.

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).

Based on the entire record, the Court recommends that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

B. Analysis

1. The 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: at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity as of his alleged onset date, January 15, 2004 (R. at 21). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's "residual of spinal fusion" to be his sole severe impairment. Id. Plaintiff's "left inguinal hernia repair," was found to be a non-severe impairment (R. at 24). The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. at 24). The ALJ then found that [p]rior to June 20, 2006, [Plaintiff] had the residual functional capacity for a full range of sedentary work. [Plaintiff] was capable of lifting and/or carrying 10 pounds occasionally, less than 10 pounds frequently, standing and/or walking about 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, sitting about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with pushing/pulling as shown for lifting and carrying (R. at 24-25). Although the ALJ foundPlaintiff's allegations of pain, prior to June 20, 2006, notto be entirely credible (R. at 26) the ALJ found that

[b]eginning on June 20, 2006, [Plaintiff] had the residual functional capacity to [perform] significantly less than a full range of sedentary work. [Plaintiff] [wa]s limited to lifting and/or carrying 10 pounds, but not frequently, c[ould not] stand in one place for any period of time and c[ould not] sit in one position for any period of time, but must move and change positions. He [wa]s unable to climb, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl and ha[d] limitations in reaching, handling, and pushing/pulling. [Plaintiff] should avoid working at heights, around moving machinery, and in temperature extremes, humidity and vibrations since his surgery in June 2006 (R. at 27). Thus, as of June 20, 2006, Plaintiff's allegations of pain were found to be generally credible. Id. Based on Medical-Vocational Rule 201.19,*fn5 the ALJ found that prior to June 20, 2006, there were jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform in significant numbers (R. at 28). However, as of June 20, 2006, there were no longer positions, in significant numbers, in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled as of June 20, 2006, but not prior to that date (R. at 29).

2. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor made in accordance with the applicable legal standards. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that a) the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions from Plaintiff's treating physicians; b) the residual functional capacity ("RFC") is not supported by substantial evidence; and c) ...

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