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James O'brien v. Michael J. Astrue

March 31, 2011



I. Introduction

Plaintiff James O'Brien challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not entitled to disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges he has been disabled since May 28, 2002, because of pain and limitations from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary emboli and deep vein thrombosis, restless leg syndrome, migraine headaches, seizure disorder, and fatigue. Plaintiff met the disability insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2006.

II. Background

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on April 4, 2002, alleging an onset of disability date of September 21, 2001. The claim was denied initially on July 17, 2002, and Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing on September 1, 2002. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing without a representative, and on July 28, 2004, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability during the relevant time frame. Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on August 16, 2004. On July 27, 2006, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the matter for further development of the record and for a new hearing. Plaintiff, now represented by counsel, wrote to the Social Security Administration on August 16, 2004, and again on December 6, 2004, stating that he had developed a new impairment and wished to reapply for DIB with an alleged onset date of April 2, 2004. However, Plaintiff's record does not contain a later application for benefits. ALJ Michael Brounoff admitted Plaintiff's letters into the record as a subsequent application for benefits, and consolidated this subsequent application with Plaintiff's original application for DIB dated April 4, 2002, that was on remand from the Appeals Council. An administrative hearing was held on May 4, 2006, at which time Plaintiff, his attorney, his wife, and a friend appeared before ALJ Brounoff. A vocational expert testified via videoconference. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on December 27, 2006, issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled during the time frame relevant to his claim. On August 31, 2007, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.

On October 29, 2007, Plaintiff filed a Civil Complaint challenging Defendant's final decision and requesting the Court toreview the decision of the ALJ pursuant to Section 205(g) and 1631(c) (3) of the Act, modify the decision of Defendant, and grant DIB benefits to Plaintiff.*fn1 The Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's complaint on December 27, 2007, requesting the Court todismiss Plaintiff's complaint. Plaintiff submitted a Plaintiff's Brief on February 29, 2008.

On March 13, 2008, Defendant filed a Brief in Support of the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings ("Defendant's Brief")*fn2 pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After full briefing, the Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement.

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. The Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for disposition.

For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds no reversible error and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Thus, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

III. Discussion

A. Legal Standard and Scope of Review:

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 and Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. 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).

"To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). 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 and Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process*fn3 to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, 416.920. 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, 2291, 96 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

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 this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his 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. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S. Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L. Ed. 2d 66 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's ...

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