The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court
1. Plaintiff Daniel Wilson challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that his disability under the Social Security Act (the "Act") ended as of February 1, 2004. Plaintiff alleges that due to degenerative disc disease, he has been disabled since August 1, 2001, and his disability has not ended. He maintains that he is therefore entitled to continuing benefits.
2. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act on December 31, 2003, alleging disability since September 7, 2001. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied Plaintiff's initial application, and Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the decision. On September 21, 2004, the Commissioner determined that Plaintiff was disabled from August 1, 2001, through February 1, 2004, and awarded him benefits for that period. The Commissioner also determined, however, that as of February 1, 2004, Plaintiff's back condition had improved such that he could work and was therefore no longer disabled within the meaning of the Act. He therefore denied benefits from February 1, 2004, forward.
Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ to challenge the Commissioner's determination that his disability ended on February 1, 2004. Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before ALJ J. Robert Brown on July 14, 2006. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on October 17, 2006, issued a decision upholding the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff's disability ended as of February 1, 2004. On September 16, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on August 20, 2009, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1
3. On March 5, 2010, the Government and Plaintiff filed Cross Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn2 The Government then filed a memorandum of law in response to Plaintiff's motion and in further support of its own motion on March 25, 2010. Plaintiff filed his reply memorandum of law on April 6, 2010.
4. 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 and Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. 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 that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla" and 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).
5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of 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 will 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 and Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
6. An individual's continued entitlement to disability benefits under the Social Security Act is conditioned on periodic review. 42 U.S.C. § 423(f). The Commissioner may terminate disbursement of benefits upon finding that the impairment is no longer disabling. Id. The Commissioner has established an eight-step evaluation process to determine whether an individual continues to be disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f).
7. This eight-step process is detailed below:
First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1). If so, the Commissioner will find that the disability ended. Id. If not, the Commissioner's review proceeds.
Second, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the severity of an impairment listed in Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(2). If so, the claimant's disability is said to continue. Id. If not, the Commissioner's review proceeds.
Third, the Commissioner determines whether there has been medical improvement.*fn3 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(3). If there is no decrease in medical severity, there is no medical improvement. Upon finding medical improvement, measured by a decrease in medical severity, the Commissioner's review continues.
Fourth, the Commissioner determines whether the medical improvement found in step three is related to the claimant's ability to do work in accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(b)(1)-(4). Medical improvement is related to the ability to work if it results in an increase in the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(3). If medical improvement is unrelated to the claimant's ability to work, the Commissioner proceeds to step five. Id. If the medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to work the Commissioner proceeds to step six. Id.
Fifth, the Commissioner considers whether the exceptions to medical improvement listed in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(d) and (e) apply to the claimant's medical improvement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(5). If none apply, the claimant's disability continues. Id.
Sixth, if medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to do work or one of the aforementioned exceptions applies, the Commissioner will determine whether the claimant's impairments are severe.*fn4 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(6). When the evidence shows that all current impairments do not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental abilities to perform basic work activities, the impairments are not severe and the claimant will no longer be considered disabled. Id.
Seventh, if the claimant's impairments are severe, the Commissioner will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity based upon all current impairments and determine whether claimant is able to perform past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(7). If ...