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VanBuren v. Astrue

August 13, 2010


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



Plaintiff Kimberly VanBuren ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), claiming that the Commissioner incorrectly denied Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Marilyn D. Zahm, which denied Plaintiff's DIB and SSI benefits, was erroneous and contrary to law as it was not supported by substantial evidence within the record.

Now before the Court is the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings and Plaintiff's cross-motion for a judgment on the pleadings, both pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and 42 U.S.C. §405(g). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's cross-motion for a judgment on the Pleadings is denied, and the ALJ's decision is therefore affirmed.


On March 12, 2004, at the time a 48 year-old woman who was currently unemployed, filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Act, and also an application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiff claims an alleged onset date of May 18, 1998.*fn1 Plaintiff's applications to the Commissioner were subsequently denied on October 6, 2004, and Plaintiff then moved for a hearing before ALJ Zahm, which was held on June 22, 2007. (R. 16, 698-746)*fn2 . In a decision dated August 20, 2007, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ's decision became final when the Social Security Appeals Council denied her appeal on March 11, 2009. On May 11, 2009, Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to §405 (g) of the Act for review of the final decision of the Commissioner.


I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. Additionally, the section directs that when considering such claims, the court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the court's scope of review to determining whether or not the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See, Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (finding that the reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo). The court is also authorized to review the legal standards employed by the Commissioner in evaluating the plaintiff's claim.

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). Defendant asserts that his decision was reasonable and is supported by the evidence in the record, and moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. 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. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2d Cir. 1988).

II. The Commissioner's Decision to Deny the Plaintiff Benefits was Supported by Substantial Evidence Within the Record and is Proper as a Matter of Law

In the ALJ's decision, she found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. A disability is defined within 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) to be the:

"inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (1991).

In determining the threshold question of Plaintiff's disability, the ALJ adhered to the Administration's 5-step sequential analysis for evaluating assignments of disability benefits.*fn3 See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Having gone through the evaluation process, the ALJ found (1) Plaintiff was not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, and has not since her alleged onset date of May 18, 1998; (2) Plaintiff had suffered from the following "severe impairments": obesity, back disorder and right knee disorder; (Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal those listed within 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 416.920(d)); (4) Plaintiff was not able to return to her past relevant work as a chocolate production machine operator; (5) Considering Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, as well as other qualifications such as age, education, and work experience, there exists other jobs within the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (R. 30-31).

A. The Substantial Medical Evidence Within the Record Supports the ALJ's Decision that Plaintiff was not Disabled

The medical evidence within the record shows that Plaintiff was initially injured at work in May of 1998. She was seen at Oswego Hospital on May 19, 1998 citing complaints of pain in her tail bone that radiated down her right leg. After Plaintiff was discharged from the hospital, she attended physical therapy where she was eventually discharged after not making significant gains in her condition as well as the expiration of her prescription. (R. 260).

At an orthopedic examination by Dr. Harold Weichert, he assessed the Plaintiff with right lumbar radicular syndrome, which had improved. (R. 22, 219). On September 30, 1998, Plaintiff was seen again after prior visits with Dr. Weichert. Medical notes state that the doctor "got down on his knees and begged [Plaintiff] to lose weight." (R. 220). The doctor also noted some dietary problems that have proven to be harmful to her. After additional visits with Dr. Weichert, Plaintiff was directed to continue with her weight loss. During a return ...

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