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Goldthrite v. Astrue

July 27, 2010

PAUL A. GOLDTHRITE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

DECISION AND ORDER

1. Plaintiff Paul Goldthrite challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff applied for Social Security Income (SSI) on September 6, 2005, alleging that he had been disabled since June 1, 2003, due mainly to schizophrenia, a cognitive impairment, a seizure disorder, and asthma. Plaintiff contends that his impairments have rendered him unable to work. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to payment of disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff received notice that his application for benefits was denied on or around March 3, 2006. He thereafter requested an administrative hearing, which was held before ALJ Bruce R. Mazzarella on April 23, 2008, at which time Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on October 9, 2008, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. On March 19, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on April 29, 2009, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On February 5, 2010, both the Government and Plaintiff filed Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After full briefing, 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 as defined 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 September 6, 2005, the date he applied for Social Security income (R. at 24);*fn2 (2) Plaintiff has severe schizophrenia, a borderline IQ, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), marijuana and alcohol abuse, seizure disorder manifested through petit mal seizures, and asthma (R. at 24); (3) Plaintiff's impairments do not meet the criteria necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the regulations (R. at 24); (4) Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform work, subject to the following limitations: he should not operate motor vehicles, work at unprotected heights, nor work in unventilated areas containing high concentrations of dust, fumes, gas, and/or vapors. Moreover, Plaintiff is limited to performing simple repetitious tasks in a low contact work environment with the general public, co-workers, and supervisors, and cannot perform work that is known to be inherently stressful or involve a good deal of changes in work assignments (R. at 28); and (5) Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a janitor/cleaner, because this work does not require the performance of work-related activities that are precluded by his residual functional capacity

(R. at 29). Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, since September 6, 2005, the date on which the application was filed. (R. at 30).

10. Plaintiff's first challenge to the ALJ's decision is that he erred in failing to find that Plaintiff's condition meets or equals the listing at §12.05. The Commissioner's regulations, found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, describe "listed" impairments, which are those impairments deemed sufficient to satisfy "the irrebuttable presumption of disability." Shaw v. Carter, 221 F.3d 126, 132 (2d Cir. 2000). The "Listing" at ยง12.05 includes four definitions for mental retardation, specifically subsections A, B, C, and D. Mental retardation refers to "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period." 20 C.F.R. ...


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