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Davis v. Astrue

July 21, 2010

RALPH H. DAVIS PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

In May of 2004, Plaintiff Ralph H. Davis ("Plaintiff") filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since March 25, 2004. His application was denied by the Commissioner for lack of disability.

Plaintiff, through his attorneys, commenced this action on May 30, 2006. Compl. (Dkt. No. 1). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons that follow, this case is remanded for further proceeding.

II. BACKGROUND

The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff Ralph H. Davis filed an application for DIB on May 4, 2004, alleging disability beginning March 25, 2004. R. at 66.*fn1 This application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. R. at 35. Plaintiff filed a timely Request for Hearing by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). R. at 40. On September 21, 2005, Plaintiff appeared with his attorney and testified before ALJ Robert E. Gale. R. at 223-48.

On January 26, 2006, ALJ Gale issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits.

R. at 11-21. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on April 5, 2006, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. R. at 5-7.

Plaintiff, through counsel, commenced this action on May 30, 2006. Compl. (Dkt. No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on September 15, 2006. Answer (Dkt. No. 5). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on September 27, 2006. Pl.'s Br. in Supp. (Dkt. No. 6). The Commissioner filed a Brief in Opposition on October 19, 2006. Def.'s Br. in Opp'n (Dkt. No. 9). Based on these submissions, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

District courts have jurisdiction to review claims contesting a final decision by the Commission of Social Security denying disability benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). In reviewing any such claim, a district court may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, it must defer to the Commissioner's determination unless the correct legal standards were not applied or substantial evidence does not support that determination. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) ("[w]here 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").

"Substantial evidence" requires more than a mere scintilla of evidence, yet less than a preponderance. Sanchez v. NLRB, 785 F.2d 409 (2d Cir. 1986). It has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 305 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). "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) (citing Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, a district court 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) (citation omitted); see also Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982); Barnett v. Apfel, 13 F. Supp. 2d 312, 314 (N.D.N.Y. 1998).

A district court has the authority to affirm, reverse, or modify a final decision of the Commissioner with or without remand. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Granting judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where the material facts are undisputed and where a court may make a judgment on the merits with reference only to the contents of the pleadings. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c); Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2d Cir. 1988). Remand is warranted where there are gaps in the record and further development of the evidence is needed, or where the ALJ has applied an improper legal standard. See Butts, 388 F.3d at 385; Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 82-83 (2d Cir. 1999); Parker v. Harris, 626 F.2d 225, 235 (2d Cir. 1980). Remand is most appropriate where further findings or explanation will clarify the rationale for the ALJ's decision. Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 39 (2d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). Additionally, remand is appropriate to allow for the consideration of additional new evidence which is material to the case and where good cause exists for the failure to submit that evidence in prior proceedings. Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991); Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983). By contrast, reversal and remand solely for calculation of benefits is appropriate when there is "persuasive proof of disability" and further development of the record would not serve any purpose. Rosa, 168 F.3d at 83; Parker, 626 F.2d at 235; Carroll v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 644 (2d Cir. 1983).

B. Five-step Sequential Evaluation

Under the Social Security Act, an individual is disabled if he or she is unable "to do 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." 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant over the age of 18 is disabled under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1520; see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987) (upholding the validity of this evaluation process). The plaintiff bears the burden of proof for the first four steps, and the Commissioner bears that burden in step five. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 details the SSA's five-step analysis: in step one, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.*fn2 If the claimant is not engaged in such activity, the ALJ advances to step two of the analysis and considers whether the claimant has a severe impairment meeting the "durational requirement"*fn3 and significantly limiting his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. In making this determination, the ALJ does not consider the claimant's age, education, or work experience. Assuming the ALJ finds the claimant has a severe impairment(s), the ALJ continues to step three and determines whether the impairment(s) meets or equals any of those listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P of Regulation No. 4 ("the Listings"). If the ALJ concludes that the claimant's impairment(s) does meet or equal one or more of the Listings, the claimant shall be deemed disabled. If the claimant's impairment(s) does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the fourth step of the evaluation requires the ALJ to assess whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn4 allows him to perform his past work. If the answer to that inquiry is that the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the fifth step asks the ALJ to determine, in light of the claimant's RFC and other vocational factors including the claimant's age, education, and work experience, whether the claimant could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560; Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on January 26, 2006. R. at 15. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of March 25, 2004. R. at 15. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had degenerative disc disease and borderline intellectual functioning, which the ALJ concluded were severe impairments. R. at 17. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment(s) that meet or medically equals an impairment in the Listings. R. at 17. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. R. at 20. Further, the ALJ concluded that given Plaintiff's age (33 years), education (limited with some vocational training), and residual functional capacity (light work), there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. R. at 20. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as that term is defined under the Social Security Act. R. at 20.

2. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed, and offers three principal arguments in support. First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erroneously found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet the criteria of Listing 12.05(C). Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ neglected to follow the "special technique" under 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520a in determining the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairments. Third, Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner erred in determining that there are significant work opportunities ...


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