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Conte v. Astrue

June 21, 2010



I. Introduction

Plaintiff Carissa Conte 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"), discontinuing her Supplemental Security Income ("SSI").*fn1

II. Background

Plaintiff, born September 13, 1987, applied for SSI, through her mother, on June 29, 2000 (R. at 36).*fn2 Plaintiff was ultimately granted benefits (R. at 12, 36). After Plaintiff's eighteenth birthday, her eligibility for disability benefits was redetermined based on the rules governing adults (R. at 12); 20 C.F.R. § 416.978. On February 16, 2006, Plaintiff was found no longer disabled as of February 1, 2006. Id. Plaintiff alleges disability due to various mental impairments, including depression and anxiety impairments, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), obsessive compulsive personality disorder ("OCPD"), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD").

Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ on November 2, 2006, but the hearing was adjourned to allow Plaintiff an opportunity to obtain representation (R. at 272-76). Plaintiff again appeared before the ALJ, with representation, on June 28, 2007 (R. at 277-303). The ALJ considered the case de novo and, on August 23, 2007, issued a decision finding her not disabled as of February 1, 2006 (R. at 12-19). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 15, 2007 (R. at 2-8). On November 6, 2008, Plaintiff filed this action.

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 Commissioner's decision 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:*fn5 At step two, Plaintiff's "depression; PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder); and generalized anxiety disorder" were found to be severe impairments (R. at 14). At step three, the ALJ found 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 15). The ALJ next determined that, as of February 1, 2006, [Plaintiff] had the residual functional capacity to perform any pertinent exertional level of work, with only 'mild' mental limitations which would not preclude meeting the basic mental demands of competitive employment, which under the Act involve[d] [the] ability to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; use judgment; respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting (R. at 16). Plaintiff's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms [we]re [found to be] not entirely credible" (R. at 18). Plaintiff was a younger individual with at least a high school education. Id. Finally, based on Medical-Vocational Rule 204.00,*fn6 the ALJ found that as of February 1, 2006, there were jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform in significant numbers (R. at 18- 19). Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from February 1, 2006, through the date of his decision (R. at 19).

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 the ALJ erred in a) evaluating the various medical opinions of record; b) failing to include all Plaintiff's non-exertional mental limitations in the residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and c) failing to properly evaluate her credibility.

a) The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Opinions is Supported by Substantial Evidence

Plaintiff argues generally that the ALJ erred in evaluating the various medical opinions of record. Plaintiff's Brief, pp. 13-19. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in i) applying the treating physician rule tothe opinions of Dr. Daniel Uwah, Plaintiff's psychiatrist; ii) failing to grant greater weight to the opinions from the Social Security Administration ("SSA") consultative examining ...

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