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Smith v. Astrue

June 21, 2010

ELAINE M. SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. INTRODUCTION

In October of 2005, Plaintiff Elaine M. Smith filed applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since January 21, 2003. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's applications.

Plaintiff, through her attorney, Jonathan P. Foster, Esq., commenced this action on December 15, 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. 22).

II. BACKGROUND

The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI benefits on October 27, 2005, and October 31, 2005, respectively. (T at 49-54, 242B-1).*fn1 The applications were denied initially. (T at 242A, 242J-N, 243). Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (T at 26-26A). A hearing was held on April 28, 2008, in Elmira, New York before ALJ Elizabeth Koennecke. (T at 243-265). Plaintiff appeared along with her attorney, Jonathan P. Foster, Esq. (T at 243).

On August 14, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications. (T at 12-19). Plaintiff filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on October 17, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request. (T at 5-7).

Plaintiff, through counsel, commenced this action on December 15, 2008. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on May 27, 2009. (Docket No. 8). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on September 11, 2009. (Docket No. 12). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on January 26, 2010. (Docket No. 21).

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 denied, Plaintiff's motion be granted, and this case be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

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 determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements under the Act through March 31, 2009. (T at 14). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 21, 2003, the alleged onset date. (T at 15). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following ...


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