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Mongold v. Astrue

July 25, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court


1. Plaintiff Darlene Mongold challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since January 18, 2007, due to C3-4 disc bulge, mild C4-5 disc bulge, C5-6 mild retrolisthesis with mild canal stenosis, C6-7 disc herniation, L4-5 and L5-S1 disc bulges with radiculopathy, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Plaintiff contends that her impairments have rendered her unable to work. She therefore asserts that she is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

2. On February 6, 2007, Plaintiff submitted an application for disability insurance benefits, disabled widow's benefits, and supplemental security income. Her application was initially denied on July 25, 2007. Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Eric L. Glazer on March 12, 2009, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on March 31, 2009, denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. On September 18, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on October 1, 2009, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On February 22, 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. The Government and Plaintiff filed responses on March 12 and March 22, 2010, respectively. This Court took the motions under advisement without oral argument.

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. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920. 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, 2291, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

7. This five-step process is detailed below:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam) (quotations in original); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. 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, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his 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. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed. 2d 66 (1983).

9. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability (R. at 17);*fn2 (2) Plaintiff's C3-4 disc bulge, mild C4-5 disc bulge, C5-6 mild retrolisthesis with mild canal stenosis, C6-7 disc herniation, L4-5 and L5-S1 disc bulges with radiculopathy, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 17); (3) Plaintiff's impairments do not meet the criteria necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the regulations (R. at 19); (4) Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a telemarketer or order filler (R. at 25) since she retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except she should avoid exposure to dust, fumes, humidity, chemicals, pulmonary irritants, and temperature extremes (R. at 20); and (5) though Plaintiff could perform her past work, thus making this step superfluous, the ALJ concluded that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (R. at 25). Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time through the date of his decision March 31, 2009. (R. at 26).

10. Plaintiff raises four challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, she argues that the ALJ failed to properly assess the opinions of her treating doctors pursuant to Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-2p. The ALJ credited three opinions, but gave limited weight to opinions that were in response to Plaintiff's subjective complaints. (R. at 24). This is because the ALJ found that Plaintiff's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effect of [her] symptoms lack the ring of credibility." (R. at 22). Thus, sufficiency of the ALJ's assessment of the medical opinions is dependent on whether the ALJ's credibility finding is properly supported.

11. Credibility determinations are generally reserved to the Commissioner, not the reviewing court. Aponte v. Sec'y of Health and Human Svcs., 728 F.2d 588, 591 (2d Cir. 1984). But such determinations must be consistent with 20 CFR 404.1529(c)(4) and 20 CFR 416.929(c)(4) and "must contain specific reasons for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to the individual and to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the individual's statements and the reasons for that weight." SSR 96-7p.

12. Here, the ALJ made an adverse credibility finding based on several factors. First, the ALJ "scrutinized [Plaintiff's] presentation at the hearing and noted evasion and inconsistency regarding the entirety of her medical complaints and history of alcohol abuse." (R. at 22). Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was less than rigorous about adhering to treatments, noting that Plaintiff "is not entirely compliant with medications and recommendations; she changes providers on a frequent basis; she freely admits at hearing that she did not take medication as prescribed and despite a diagnosis of chronic pulmonary disease with asthma, she continues to smoke cigarettes." ...

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