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Steven Mosinski v. Michael J. Astrue

March 7, 2011

STEVEN MOSINSKI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. INTRODUCTION

In December of 2005, Plaintiff Steven Mosinski applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI" ) benefits and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since July of 2002, due to the symptoms of Crohn's disease. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's applications. Plaintiff, by and through his attorney, Richard A. Altman, Esq., filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

On December 22, 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. 21).

II. BACKGROUND

The procedural history may be summarized as follows:

Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI benefits on December 22, 2005, alleging disability beginning on July 26, 2002. (T at 42-44).*fn1 The applications were denied initially and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held on April 1, 2008, before ALJ Carl E. Stephan. (T at 399). Plaintiff appeared, along with his attorney, and testified. (T at 402-408).

On May 19, 2008, ALJ Stephan issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was disabled during the period between July 26, 2002 and July 31, 2003. (T at 19). However, the ALJ further concluded that, beginning on August 1, 2003, medical improvement occurred, and that as of that date, Plaintiff was no longer disabled. (T at 23). On June 26, 2008, the ALJ issued an amended decision, in which he clarified his ruling with respect to Plaintiff's DIB application (specifically, he concluded that, while Plaintiff was disabled during the closed period between July 26, 2002 and July 31, 2003, he was not entitled to any award of benefits for that period). (ST at 410-422).*fn2

The Appeals Council issued a decision on July 7, 2009, denying Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 3-6). The Appeals Council's decision references the ALJ's initial decision of May 19, 2008, but not the amended decision issued on June 26, 2008. (T at 3). The record indicates that the brief submitted to the Appeals Council by Plaintiff's counsel was submitted on August 29, 2008, after the amended decision was issued. (T at 6). Plaintiff's counsel states in his supporting Brief that the Appeals Council was asked to review the amended decision, but does not address the fact that the Appeals Council referenced the earlier decision. (Docket No. 12, at p. 1). Given that none of the parties has raised this as an issue (for example, Plaintiff has not argued that the Appeals Council failed to review the amended decision), this Court will proceed as if the Appeals Council's decision denying Plaintiff's request for review included a consideration of the amended decision.

In any event, the aspect of the ALJ's decision at issue in this case is the denial of benefits for the period starting on August 1, 2003. Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff was disabled, but not entitled to benefits, for a closed period of time prior to that date. This was the aspect of the ALJ's decision clarified by the amended decision (i.e. whether Plaintiff was entitled to either DIB or SSI benefits for the closed period of disability). Rather, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by finding that he experienced medical improvement as of August 1, 2003, and was therefore not disabled after that date. The original decision and amended decision do not materially differ with respect to this issue. As such, even if one were to consider the original decision as the ALJ's "final" decision for purposes of this Court's review, it would not affect the outcome of the case.

Plaintiff timely commenced this action by filing a Complaint on August 18, 2009. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on December 15, 2009. (Docket No. 7). Plaintiff filed a Brief in support of the action on March 12, 2010. (Docket No. 12). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on June 3, 2010. (Docket No. 18). Plaintiff, with leave of the Court, filed a Reply Brief on June 17, 2010. (Docket No. 20).

Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

For the reasons that follow, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner's motion be granted, Plaintiff's motion be denied, and that judgment be entered in favor of the Commissioner.

III. DISCUSSION

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 Rutherfordv. 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.*fn3

August 1, 2003, and that Plaintiff's disability ended on that date. (ST at 418). The ALJ opined that, as of that date, Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or medically equal any of the ...


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