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Mitchell v. Astrue

August 4, 2010

PATRICIA A. MITCHELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

DECISION and ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Patricia A. Mitchell ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (codified in relevant parts at 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Elizabeth W. Koennecke denying her application for benefits was against the weight of substantial evidence contained in the record and based on errors of law. Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the judgment of the Commissioner and remand for calculation of benefits, or in the alternative, for further administrative proceedings.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record and was based upon the application of the correct legal standards. Plaintiff cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings and opposes the Commissioner's motion on the grounds that the Commissioner's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons set forth below, I find that the decision of the Commissioner was supported by substantial evidence in the record and was in accordance with the applicable law. I therefore grant the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and deny Plaintiff's cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings.

BACKGROUND

On April 17, 2006, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB, alleging disability beginning April 14, 2005. (T. 55-57). The claim was initially denied on July 31, 2006. (T. 51-54). Thereafter, the Plaintiff timely filed a written request for hearing on August 10, 2006. (T. 50). On September 4, 2008, the Plaintiff and her attorney, Scott Learned, appeared at a hearing held in Elmira, NY. (T. 225-45). The hearing was held via videoconferencing though, with Plaintiff's counsel's permission, was conducted via audio only due to technical difficulties. Id. In a decision dated September 27, 2006, ALJ Elizabeth W. Koennecke found that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (T. 18-28). The Appeals Council denied review on April 10, 2009, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 2-4). The Plaintiff subsequently filed this action on June 11, 2009.

DISCUSSION

I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

Title 42, Section 405(g) of the United States Code grants jurisdiction to Federal District Courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. See Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 320 (1976). In addition, Section 405(g) directs that the District Court must accept the Commissioner's findings of fact if those findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 181 (2d Cir. 1998); see also Williams v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 9396, at *3 (2d Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." See Metropolitan Stevedore Co. v. Rambo, 521 U.S. 121, 149 (1997) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Lynn v. Schweiker, 565 F. Supp. 265, 267 (S.D. Tex. 1983) (citation omitted). Section 405(g) thus limits this Court's scope of review to two inquiries: (i) whether the Commissioner's conclusions are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole, and (ii) whether the Commissioner's conclusions are based upon an erroneous legal standard. See Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003); see also Wagner v. Secretary of Health & Human Serv., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990) (holding that review of the Secretary's decision is not de novo and that the Secretary's findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence).

Both Plaintiff and Defendant move for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) and Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Section 405(g) provides that the District Court "shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C.S. § 405(g) (2007). Under Rule 12(c), judgment on the pleadings may be granted where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. See Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988).

II. The ALJ's Disability Determination Was Supported By Substantial Evidence In The Record

In finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ adhered to the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential analysis for evaluating applications and determining whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v)(2009).*fn1

Under step one of that process, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 14, 2005, the alleged onset date. (T. 19). At steps two and three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's impairments, residual of a lumbar laminectomy, fibromyalgia syndrome and obesity, were severe within the meaning of the Regulations but were not severe enough to meet or equal, either singly or in combination, any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P of Regulations No. 4. (T. 19-20). At step four, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work as she only had "the residual functional capacity [("RFC")] to lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pound frequently, stand or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour day and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour day. [Also, s]he c[ould] perform occasional bending but should perform no frequent bending or twisting." (T. 21-23). For step five of the analysis, the ALJ used the Medical-Vocational Rules found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 ("the Rules") to direct a finding of not disabled. (T. 23-24). More specifically she found that since "[t]he limitations of the claimant's residual functional capacity do not take her out of the full range of light work, [] which includes sedentary work, [] a finding of 'not disabled' [wa]s directed by Medical-Vocational Rules 202.13 and 201.13." (T. 24).

Plaintiff contends that the Administration's determination is not supported by substantial evidence for three reasons. (Plaintiff's Brief ("Pl. Mem."), 1, 15-24). First, she believes that the ALJ "violated the treating physician rule in selectively ignoring portions of the medical record." (Pl. Br., 9-13). Second and consequently, the Plaintiff believes that the ALJ "rendered an improper conclusion with respect to the residual functional capacity." (Pl. Br., 13-16). Finally, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ "made reversible error in relying on the grids." (Pl. Br. 16). The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record because an "RFC assessment is a legal conclusion to be made by the ALJ as a trier ...


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