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Sharon Kouadio v. Michael J. Astrue

December 2, 2010

SHARON KOUADIO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Richard J. Arcara United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Sharon L. Kouadio ("plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of defendant Michael J. Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits, and partially denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Both parties moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Plaintiff alleged an onset date of June 18, 2005. In August 2008, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff was not disabled from June 18, 2005 through December 31, 2006, but that as of January 1, 2007, she met the disability standard. Plaintiff seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision denying disability status from June 18, 2005 to December 31, 2006, arguing that the decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ was supported by substantial evidence in the record and should be affirmed. For the reasons set forth below, the case is remanded for further administrative proceedings.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed applications for SSDI and SSI benefits alleging that she could no longer work as of June 18, 2005 because of pain from neck and back injuries sustained in a February 2003 automobile accident. (Tr. 73; 77-78; 136; 302; 308; 310).*fn1 Plaintiff was forty-six years old at the time of her application, and had completed approximately a year and a half of a college education. (Tr. 73; 81; 300). Plaintiff's primary past relevant work was as a cook, and her date last insured for SSDI purposes was September 30, 2005. (Tr. 73; 78; 301-02; 304; 330). Plaintiff's applications for benefits were denied on December 7, 2005. (Tr. 54-57). A hearing was then held on June 10, 2008 before the ALJ, at which time testimony was provided by plaintiff and a vocational expert. (Tr. 296-337).

Plaintiff testified at the hearing that the her neck and mid and lower back pain ranged in severity between six and nine on a scale of one to ten (with ten being severe to the point of needing medical attention). (Tr. 312; 315-16). She indicated that from 2005 to the time of the hearing, her neck and shoulder pain "comes and goes, " her arm pain became "more frequent, " and her mid and lower back pain was "constant" as of 2005. (Tr. 312-15). Plaintiff also testified that she suffers from numbness and sharp pains in her arms and legs. (Tr. 313-14; 316-17). With regard to her abilities and limitations, plaintiff testified that she could sit for ten to fifteen minutes, stand for less time than she could sit, only walk the distance of four houses before having to stop, and lifting five pounds was "very difficult." (Tr. 318-19). Plaintiff also testified that she needs to lie down for several hours during the day and that lying down is the most comfortable position for her. (Tr. 320).

In addition to her testimony at the hearing, plaintiff consistently reported on her disability paperwork from 2005 to 2008 that activities such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, climbing stairs, kneeling, squatting, and reaching caused pain. (Tr. 88; 95; 103-04; 108-09; 114-15; 120; 126; 130). In 2005, plaintiff reported to Dr. Capicotto, one of her treating physicians, that her low back pain was "aggravated by prolonged sitting, prolonged standing and any activities such as lifting, pushing, pulling, bending and leaning." (Tr. 147). Also in 2005, plaintiff reported Dr. Lisak, another treating physician, that "[s]itting, walking, any movement makes [her pain] worse." (Tr. 203). During a consultative examination conducted by Dr. Balderman in 2005, plaintiff reported that she could only "walk half a block, stand 20 minutes, sit 20 minutes, climb a flight of stairs, and lift[] and carry 5 lb." (Tr. 171).

Dr. Gosy, a treating physician who began seeing plaintiff in May 2006, consistently opined in his treatment notes that plaintiff was 50% disabled. (See Tr. 211-29). Dr. Capicotto and Dr. Lisak did not provide opinions as to plaintiff's level of disability, and none of plaintiff's treating physicians provided opinions relative to her residual functional capacity. Dr. Balderman, who only saw plaintiff for the consultative examination in 2005, opined in that she had "mild limitations in bending and lifting due to sciatica." (Tr. 172).

In a decision dated August 20, 2008, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled between her alleged onset date of June 18, 2005 and December 31, 2006 (sometimes referred to herein as the "first period"), but found that she was disabled beginning January 1, 2007 (sometimes referred to herein is the "second period"). (Tr. 11-25). Despite medical evidence supporting plaintiff's claims of back and neck pain from the alleged onset date in June 2005 and beyond (in the form of numerous herniated discs at various levels), the ALJ found her symptoms did not preclude her from working before December 31, 2006, but that they did preclude her from working after that date. As a result of that determination, plaintiff was not entitled to any SSDI benefits because she was not found disabled before her last insured date of September 2005. (See Tr. 25).

Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, but her request was denied on November 3, 2008. (Tr. 3-5). Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed the instant action seeking review of the ALJ's determination.

DISCUSSION

I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), district courts have jurisdiction to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. On review, the district court may set aside the decision of the Commissioner "only if the factual findings are not supported by 'substantial evidence' or if the decision is based on legal error." Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000); see also 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla," and is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as ...


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