In January of 2006, Plaintiff Anita Taylor applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she was unable to work between December 18, 2005, and June 9, 2007, due to physical and mental impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's applications. Plaintiff, through her attorneys, Lachman & Gorton, Peter
A. Gorton, Esq., commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).
The parties, by and through their respective counsel, consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 (c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket No. 11). The Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for disposition. (Docket No. 15).
The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits and DIB on January 17, 2006, alleging disability beginning on December 18, 2005. (T at 58-62, 278-80).*fn1 The applications were denied initially and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held on May 8, 2008, before ALJ Robert E. Gale. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. (T at 287-320). At the hearing, Plaintiff, through counsel, amended her applications to allege a closed period of disability from December 18, 2005, to June 9, 2007. (T at 291).
On May 30, 2008, ALJ Gale issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications. (T at 13-19). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on July 17, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 6-9).
Plaintiff, by and through her attorney, timely commenced this action on August 5, 2008, by filing a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on November 5, 2008. (Docket No. 8). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on November 10, 2008 (Docket No. 9) and filed a Brief in opposition on December 18, 2008 (Docket No. 13).
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, the Commissioner's motion is denied, Plaintiff's motion is granted, and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Decision and Order.
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).
1. Commissioner's Decision
The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2010. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the alleged period of disability (December 18, 2005 through June 9, 2007). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments considered "severe" under the Social Security Act: polysubstance abuse (in remission), bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and knee pain (secondary to bilateral total knee replacements). (T at 15).
However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments found in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). (T at 17).
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand/walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff could not repetitively use foot controls, crawl, or climb ladders or scaffolds; but could occasionally kneel and crouch; and could occasionally perform fine manipulation with her hands. With regard to Plaintiff's mental capacity, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could understand, remember, and ...