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Lydia L. Malone v. Commissioner of Social Security

January 18, 2011




In February of 2006, Plaintiff Lydia L. Malone applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since March of 2002 due to physical and mental impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's application. Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

On September 3, 2010, the Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket No. 22).


The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff applied for DIB on February 22, 2006, alleging disability beginning on March 10, 2002. (T at 37).*fn1 The application was denied and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held on March 29, 2008, before ALJ Carl E. Stephan. Plaintiff appeared, waived her right to counsel, and testified. (T at 301-318).

On April 24, 2008, ALJ Stephan issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application. (T at 11-19). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on September 18, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 3-6).

Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, commenced this action on November 20, 2008, by filing a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on March 25, 2009. (Docket No. 7).

On November 16, 2009, Randolph F. Treece, United States Magistrate Judge, issued an Order directing Plaintiff to file her supporting brief on or before November 16, 2009. (Docket No. 9). On January 4, 2010, Plaintiff filed a letter requesting an extension of time to submit her brief. (Docket No. 10). Judge Treece granted the request and established February 22, 2010, as the new brief submission deadline. (Docket No. 12). On February 23, 2010, Judge Treece gave Plaintiff a further extension of time, setting April 22, 2010 as Plaintiff's brief submission deadline. (Docket No. 14).

On April 16, 2010, Plaintiff requested that the Commissioner be directed to submit

a brief first. (Docket No. 19). In a text order entered on April 20, 2010, Judge Treece granted Plaintiff's request and the Commissioner filed a Brief on May 10, 2010. (Docket No.

20). Per Judge Treece's text order, Plaintiff was given an additional 60 days to file a brief. On September 14, 2010, Plaintiff filed another request for an extension of time to

submit her brief, which this Court granted on September 23, 2010. (Docket No. 25). Plaintiff did not submit a brief and the new deadline established by this Court expired on October 29, 2010. Accordingly, this Court will deem the record complete.

Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, the Court generally proceeds as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings. In this case, because the Commissioner filed a brief and Plaintiff did not, the Court is technically faced with an unopposed motion by the Commissioner for judgment on the pleadings. However, out of an abundance of caution and given Plaintiff's pro se status, this Court will review the Commissioner's arguments on the merits. While the benefits review process provides for deference to the Commissioner's administrative determination, "we must remember that '[t]he Social Security Act is a remedial statute which must be "liberally applied"; its intent is inclusion rather than exclusion.'" Vargas v. Sullivan, 898 F.2d 293, 296 (2d Cir. 1990)(quoting Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 29 (2d Cir.1979).

For the reasons that follow, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner's motion be denied and that this case be remanded for further proceedings.


A. Legal Standard

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 & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir.1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir.1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); 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 evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," and it 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).

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 may 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 & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir.1984).

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. §§ 416.920, 404.1520. 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, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.*fn2

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 (2d Cir.1984).

The final step of the inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her 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. §§ 416.920(g); 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2007. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 10, 2002, the alleged onset date. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments considered "severe" under the Social ...

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