In April of 2005, Plaintiff Jerry Williamson applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff subsequently applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since May of 2004 due to back problems. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's applications. Plaintiff, acting pro se, filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3). The parties 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. 16).
The Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a disposition. (Docket No. 24).
The procedural history may be summarized as follows:
Plaintiff applied for DIB on April 14, 2005, alleging disability beginning on May 28, 2004. (T at 39-41).*fn1 The application was denied initially and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On May 26, 2006, while his hearing request was pending, Plaintiff filed an SSI application. (T at 46-48). A hearing was held on October 19, 2006, in Albany, New York before ALJ Carl E. Stephan. (T at 210). Plaintiff appeared, along with an attorney, and testified. (T at 212-232).
On November 21, 2006, ALJ Stephan issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denying both benefit applications. (T at 16-21). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on December 17, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 3-7).
Plaintiff timely commenced this action by filing a pro se Complaint on February 19, 2009. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on July 27, 2009. (Docket No. 17). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on December 8, 2009. (Docket No. 21). Plaintiff filed a Brief in support of the action on December 29, 2009. (Docket No. 22). 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.
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 had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 28, 2004, the alleged onset date. (T at 16). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered from a severe muscuoloskeletal impairment, but 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 20).
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, as defined under the Social Security regulations. (T at 19). The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a truck driver due to heavy lifting required in connection with that job. (T at 19). The ALJ concluded that considering Plaintiff's age (50 years old), education (high school), and work experience (semi-skilled past relevant work experience), there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (T at 20). Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined under the Social Security Act, and was therefore not entitled to benefits. (T at 20). As noted above, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on December 17, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 3-7).
Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed. Plaintiff offers four (4) principal arguments in support of this position. First, he contends that his impairment met or medically equaled one of the impairments set forth in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). Second, he argues that the ALJ did not properly assess his residual functional capacity ("RFC"). Third, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to adequately assess his credibility. Fourth, he contends that the ALJ erred by concluding that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. This Court will address each argument in turn. In so doing, this Court is mindful that a pro se litigant's pleadings and submissions must be construed liberally and interpreted "to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir.2006).
Impairments listed in Appendix 1 of the Regulations are "acknowledged by the [Commissioner] to be of sufficient severity to preclude" substantial gainful activity. Accordingly, a claimant who meets or equals a Listing is "conclusively presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits." Dixon v. Shalala, 54 F.3d 1019, 1022 (2d Cir.1995); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) ("If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of ...