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Nelson v. Astrue

August 12, 2010

TERRI L. NELSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: George H. Lowe, United States Magistrate Judge

REPORT-RECOMMENDATION*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

On September 15, 2005, Plaintiff Terri L. Nelson protectively applied for supplemental security income ("SSI"). Administrative Transcript ("T") 53-55. On October 7, 2008,*fn2 a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). T 311-334. On December 9, 2008, a second hearing was held before the ALJ. T 335-364. On February 11, 2009, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. T 13-27.

Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council. T 10. On July 17, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. T 4-7. Plaintiff commenced this action on August 7, 2009. Dkt. No. 1.

B. The Contentions

Plaintiff makes the following claims:

1. The ALJ erred at step two when he failed to find that Plaintiff's obesity and "lateral subluxation of patellas bilaterally with use of cane" were severe impairments. Dkt. No. 10 at 16-19.

2. The ALJ failed to use the "special technique" when evaluating Plaintiff's mental impairment. Dkt. No. 10 at 22.

3. The ALJ failed to apply the appropriate legal standards in evaluating Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") and in developing the record. Dkt. No. 10 at 19-23.

4. The ALJ failed to apply the appropriate legal standards in evaluating Plaintiff's credibility. Dkt. No. 10 at 23-24.

5. The ALJ erred at step five when he found that Plaintiff was not disabled using the framework of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. Dkt. No. 10 at 24-25.

Defendant disagrees, and argues that the decision should be affirmed. Dkt. No. 12.

II. APPLICABLE LAW

A. Standard for Benefits

To be considered disabled, a plaintiff seeking disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income benefits must establish that he is "unable to engage in 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). In addition, the plaintiff's physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

Acting pursuant to its statutory rulemaking authority (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(a), 1383(d)(1)), the Social Security Administration ("SSA") has promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. "If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).

At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment," defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. [20 C.F.R. §§] 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled.[] If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.[] [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.9630(c).

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25 (footnotes omitted).

The plaintiff-claimant bears the burden of proof regarding the first four steps. See Draegert v. Barnhart, 311 F.3d 468, 472 (2d Cir. 2002). If the plaintiff-claimant meets his or her burden of proof on all four steps, the burden then shifts to the defendant-Commissioner to prove that the plaintiff-claimant is capable of performing other jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.

B. Scope of Review

In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). A reviewing court may not affirm an ALJ's decision if it reasonably doubts whether the proper legal standards were applied, even if the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. Johnson, 817 F.2d at 986. In addition, an ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587-88 (2d Cir. 1984).

A court's factual review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to the determination of whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). "Substantial evidence has been defined as 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Williams o/b/o Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). It must be "more than a scintilla" of evidence scattered throughout the administrative record. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). "To determine on appeal whether an 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, 859 F.2d at 258 (citations omitted). However, a reviewing court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1212 (1983).

III. THE PLAINTIFF

Plaintiff, who was forty-two years old at the time of the second hearing, completed the tenth grade. T 341-43. She also completed some vocational training for "book[-]keeping/accounting." T 343. Plaintiff is married. Id. She lives in an apartment. T 340.

Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 29, 2004. T 343-44. Plaintiff worked briefly as an assembly line worker, ...


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