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Haggerty v. Astrue

June 23, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge



Plaintiff, Robert J. Haggerty ("Plaintiff" or "Haggerty") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Haggerty's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Haggerty applied for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") for the period from May 4, 2000 to December 31, 2004, when Haggerty's insured status expired. Plaintiff asserts that the determination by the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")that he was not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence for four reasons: 1) the ALJ erred in evaluating Plaintiff's combination of impairments, 2)the ALJ erred in failing to recontact the consultative examiner, 3)the ALJ erred in rejecting the medical opinion of the Plaintiff's treating physician, and 4) the ALJ erred in finding the Plaintiff's testimony not credible. The Plaintiff asserts that, for the aforementioned reasons, the ALJ's decisions should be reversed.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings affirming his final decision that the Plaintiff is not entitled to these benefits on the grounds that the ALJ's decision followed the correct legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record. For the reasons set forth hereunder, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and is in accordance with the applicable legal standards.


On June 16, 2000, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") alleging disability due to bilateral shoulder impairments that caused pain and weakness in his arms. Plaintiff was born August 21, 1947. Plaintiff is a high school graduate and a licensed cosmetologist. Plaintiff worked in the cosmetology business for five years before he became owner-manager of a retail clothing store where he worked from August 1977 until August 1999. The Plaintiff had two employees, hired and fired, did the bookkeeping, ordering, and buying, waited on customers, unloaded trucks, stocked shelves, and cleaned the floor.

On January 29, 1998, Plaintiff sustained an injury to his right shoulder while working and subsequently filed a Workers' Compensation case. Plaintiff underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder followed by physical therapy and was able to return to full duty work by December of 1998. Plaintiff's Worker's Compensation case was closed and he was determined to have permanent schedule loss of fifteen percent of the right arm. Plaintiff never requested that his case be reopened or that his shoulder be re-evaluated.

Plaintiff stopped working in August of 1999 due to the loss of his largest supplier. Plaintiff developed pain in his left shoulder and underwent a left shoulder arthroscopy on May 4, 2000. Plaintiff received physical therapy for a brief period but discontinued treatment as he felt it was exacerbating his shoulder problems. Plaintiff never sought vocational rehabilitation nor attempted to obtain other work. Plaintiff alleges that he has been physically disabled since May 4, 2000 and has been unable to engage in substantial gainful activity as a result.

Plaintiff's application for DIB was denied initially and upon reconsideration. A timely request was filed for a hearing before an ALJ. Plaintiff appeared, with council, before ALJ Bruce Mazzarella on March 7, 2002. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. This decision became final when the Appeals Council denied review on March 25, 2005. Plaintiff then commenced a civil action in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (CV-050329). Upon review, the case was remanded with instructions for the ALJ to reconsider the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician and to clearly articulate the reasons and evidence which justified affording the medical opinion the weight it was given.

A new hearing was ordered and was held on June 4, 2008. The Petitioner appeared, with counsel, before ALJ Bruce Mazarella on August 18, 2008. The ALJ again found that the Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period. This became the final decision of the Commissioner. This action, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision, was commenced on December 17, 2008.


I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 320 (1976). When considering such a claim, the court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the court's scope of review to determining whether or not the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (finding that the reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo).

While the court must act as "more than an uncritical rubber stamp," it must not "decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Delgado v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986); Sitarek v. Shalala, 92-CV-641S, 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5851 (W.D.N.Y. April 21, 1994). The Commissioner's findings are not subject to reversal merely because two inconsistent conclusions could be drawn from the evidence, so long as his particular finding is supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., NLRB v. Columbian Enameling & Stamping Co., 306 U.S. 292, 299-300 (1939); Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)("where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the Secretary").

The court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Lynn v. Schweiker, 565 F. Supp. 265, 267 (S.D. Tex.1983) (citation omitted). The Commissioner, who asserts that his decision was reasonable and is supported by the evidence in the record, moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Judgment on the pleadings may be granted under Rule 12(c) where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2d Cir. 1988). If, after a review of the pleadings, the court is convinced that the Plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief, judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See, Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The Court is also authorized to review the legal standards employed by the Commissioner in evaluating the Plaintiff's claim.

II. Evaluation of Entitlement to Social Security Benefits

i. Standard for Determining Disability

The ALJ, in his decision, found that Haggerty was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Act defines a disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months..." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual will only be considered "under a disability" if his impairment is so severe that he is both unable to do his previous work and unable to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. §§ 423(d)(2)(A).

In determining if a disability exists, the ALJ is required to adhere to the following five-step sequential evaluation:

(1) if the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, he is not disabled;

(2) if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, his impairment(s) must be "severe" ...

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