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Merritt v. Astrue

June 24, 2010


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



Plaintiff Melissa A. Merritt ("plaintiff") commenced this action on December 4, 2008, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the defendant Michael J. Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's claim for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits under the Social Security Act. Both parties moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that plaintiff is not entitled to benefits because substantial evidence in the record demonstrates that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Therefore, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted, and the plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.


Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since October 2003 because of an inability to use her non-dominant right due to tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as depression. (Tr. 59-61; 68-69; 84). Plaintiff was 29 years old at the time of her amended onset date, had a high school education, one year of college, and is a certified pharmacy technician. (Tr. 59; 65; 73; 454). Her past work includes pharmacy technician, hand packager, deli clerk and stock clerk. (Tr. 69-70; 454-58). Her date last insured for SSDI purposes was December 31, 2007. (Tr. 41; 65).

Plaintiff writes with her left hand but performs a number of other functions with her right hand, such as using scissors, calculators, remote controls and eating. (Tr. 470; 474). Plaintiff's right hand problems began in 2001, and escalated to the point that she was advised to stop working in June 2002 by her treating physician Dr. Thomas Hansen, an orthopedic surgeon and hand specialist. (Tr. 459-60). In January 2004, plaintiff underwent two surgical procedures: carpal tunnel release and first extensor compartment release. (Tr. 290; 462). Plaintiff testified that her pain worsened after the procedures and that she has difficulty bathing herself and performing personal hygiene tasks. (Tr. 462-70). She also has difficulty preparing meals and doing dishes, although she does feed and bathe her daughter, gets her off to school, helps her with her homework, and feeds and bathes her pets. She testified that she cannot use her right hand to cut with scissors, type, or operate a computer mouse. (Tr. 486). She also testified that she cannot lift over five pounds with her right hand, but indicated no weight lifting limit for her left hand. (Tr. 486-87). Plaintiff states that her medications caused various side effects, including making her groggy and light-headed. (Tr. 489).

Administrative Law Judge Nancy Lee Gregg ("ALJ") found that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to lift, carry, pull and push up to ten pounds frequently with her left hand, using her right hand only to support or assist. She could not perform repetitive reaching or lifting with her right hand, or push/pull with her upper right arm, but could occasionally reach, handle and finger with her right hand. She had no limitations in sitting, standing or walking in an eight-hour day, nor any limitations in climbing stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling or crawling. The ALJ also found that plaintiff had the ability to understand, remember and follow simple directions and could perform simple tasks, maintain attention and concentration and learn new tasks. She had the ability to interact with the general public but had a moderate limitation in understanding detailed instructions.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work reduced by the above-noted limitations. Although the ALJ determined that plaintiff could not perform any of her past work, the ALJ found that plaintiff is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy such as a telemarketer, information clerk and telephone survey worker. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 37-40).

The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on October 1, 2008, and therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 7-9). Plaintiff then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's determination.


Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the factual findings of the Commissioner are conclusive when they are supported by substantial evidence. Rivera v. Harris, 623 F.2d 212, 216 (2d Cir. 1980). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla," and is 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) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

In order to qualify for SSDI benefits a claimant must not be able "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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). The claimant's impairments must be "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Additionally, the claimant must meet the insured status requirements set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 423(c).

The following five-step sequential analysis is used to determine whether a claimant is disabled ...

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