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Shanna Saxon v. Michael J. Astrue

March 4, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Norman A. Mordue, Chief U.S. District Judge:



Plaintiff Shanna Saxon brings the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1381 of the Social Security Act, seeking a review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny her application for disability benefits.


On February 20, 2002 and October 19, 2004, plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB.*fn1 On July 27, 2004, ALJ Thomas P. Zolezzi issued a decision denying plaintiff's February 2002 application for benefits. (See Complt., App. 1).*fn2 On November 3, 2004, the Appeals Council issued a decision remanding the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. In addition, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to consolidate the February 2002 action with plaintiff's subsequent claim filed on October 19, 2004. (Id. at App. 2). On July 12, 2005, the ALJ issued a decision denying both applications. (Id. at App. 4). On August 4, 2005, the Appeals Council provided plaintiff with a notice that denied plaintiff's request for review of that decision and further informed plaintiff that she was entitled to seek judicial review by filing a complaint in the United States District Court within 60 days of receipt of the notice. (Id. at App. 5).

Prior to the Appeals Council denial, on July 19, 2005, plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (T. 63)*fn3 . On July 27, 2005, plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff was 23 years old at the time of her application and alleged an inability to work due to depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia. (T. 66). Plaintiff claimed that her condition began on January 1, 1992. (T. 63).

Plaintiff received an I.E.P. (Individualized Education Program) diploma and her past work consisted of employment as a cashier and babysitter. (T. 98-99, 286).

On November 4, 2005, plaintiff's applications were denied and plaintiff requested a hearing by an ALJ which was held on January 9, 2007 and continued on March 22, 2007. (T. 55-59, 283, 298). On March 30, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim for disability benefits and supplemental security income. (T. 15-25). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on October 24, 2007, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. (T. 7). This action followed.


The Social Security Act (the "Act") authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits to individuals with "disabilities." The Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). There is a five-step analysis for evaluating disability claims:

"In essence, if the Commissioner determines (1) that the claimant is not working, (2) that he has a 'severe impairment,' (3) that the impairment is not one [listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations] that conclusively requires a determination of disability, and (4) that the claimant is not capable of continuing in his prior type of work, the Commissioner must find him disabled if (5) there is not another type of work the claimant can do." The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, while the Social Security Administration bears the burden on the last step.

Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Draegert v. Barnhart, 311 F.3d 468, 472 (2d Cir. 2002)); Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 132 (2d Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted).

A Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled will be set aside when the factual findings are not supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Shaw, 221 F.3d at 131. Substantial evidence has been interpreted to mean "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. The Court may also set aside the Commissioner's decision when it is based upon legal error. Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999).

On March 30, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled from July 13, 2005 through the date of the decision. (T. 24). Prior to conducting the five-step analysis, the ALJ discussed plaintiff's prior applications for DIB and SSI. The ALJ noted that plaintiff's prior application was denied on July 12, 2005, in an opinion by a different ALJ. (T. 16). The ALJ, "decline[d] to reopen the earlier application, filed on February 20, 2002, which adjudicated the periods from January 1, 1992 through July 12, 2005, because good cause has not been found".

(T. 16). The ALJ concluded, "[t]he remainder of the decision will address the issues as they pertain to the period beginning July 13, 2005, the day after the previous ALJ decision". (T. 16).

The ALJ found at step one that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 13, 2005, the day after the previous unfavorable ALJ decision. (T. 18). At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff suffered from a history of back pain, affective disorder, anxiety disorder and personality disorder which qualified as "severe impairments" within the meaning of the Social Security Regulations (the "Regulations"). (T. 18). At the third step of the analysis, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the severity of any impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the Regulations. (T. 18). The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to "perform work at a medium level of exertion: that is occasionally lifting and carrying up to 50 pounds and frequently lifting and carrying up to 25 pounds; as well as standing, walking or sitting six hours in an eight-hour workday. In addition the claimant is limited to simple entry-level work in a low stress environment in which she would not be required to do planning, report writing, supervising or maintain high production quotas; performing tasks with reading ability consistent with her IEP certificate; with little or no interaction with the public; with only occasional interaction with co-workers; and with infrequent changes in the work environment." (T. 18).

At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not have the residual functional capacity to perform any of her past relevant work. (T. 23). The ALJ obtained the testimony of a vocational expert to determine whether there were jobs plaintiff could perform. Based upon the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ concluded at step five, that plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy such as work as a laundry worker/sorter and cleaner/housekeeper. (T. 24). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act.

(T. 24).

In seeking federal judicial review of the Commissioner's decision, plaintiff argues that:

(1) the ALJ erred when he declined to "reopen" plaintiff's prior applications for SSI and DIB; (2) the ALJ erred when he failed to obtain and review plaintiff's medical records from her prior applications for SSI and DIB; (3) the ALJ failed to explain why plaintiff's condition did not meet or equal a listed impairment; (4) the ALJ failed to consider the opinion of plaintiff's treating sources; (5) the ALJ failed to properly assess plaintiff's credibility; and (6) the ALJ did not meet his burden of proof at the fifth step of the sequential evaluation. Plaintiff requests a remand solely for the calculation of benefits. (Dkt. No. 10).

A. Prior Applications

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he failed to obtain records relating to plaintiff's February 2002 and October 2004 applications for SSI and DIB. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ should have obtained the prior records to determine whether the applications should be reopened. Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ should have reviewed the entire file to "obtain a longitudinal" assessment of plaintiff's condition. Defendant claims that the ALJ's discretionary denial is not subject to judicial review. Moreover, defendant argues that the ALJ properly limited his review to evidence pertaining to plaintiff's current applications.

With respect to judicial review of the Secretary's decisions, Section 405 provides, in pertinent part:

(g) Judicial Review

Any individual, after any final decision of the Secretary made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days . . .

(h) Finality of Secretary's Decision

The findings and decisions of the Secretary after a hearing shall be binding upon all individuals who were parties to such hearing. No findings of fact or decision of the Secretary shall be reviewed by any person except as herein provided. No action against the United States, the Secretary, or any officer or employee thereof shall be brought under ...

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