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Darlene M. Lohnas v. Michael J. Astrue

March 31, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court


1. Plaintiff Darlene M. Lohnas challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act") at any time between April 23, 2003, and December 31, 2006, her date last insured.*fn1

Plaintiff contends that her physical and mental conditions rendered her unable to work during that time period and therefore asserts that she is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed her application for social security disability insurance benefits on April 13, 2006.*fn2 Her application was initially denied on September 29, 2006. On September 18, 2008, a hearing was held before the ALJ at Plaintiff's request. The ALJ issued a decision on November 4, 2008, denying Plaintiff's application. Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies*fn3 and filed the instant action on July 30, 2009, challenging the ALJ's decision.

3. On December 31, 2009, the parties each filed Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings. After full briefing, this Court took the motions under advisement on March 3, 2010, without oral argument. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied.

4. 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 be reversed only 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 that which 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).

5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the 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 will 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).

6. 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. § § 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140--42, 107 S. Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

7. This five-step process is detailed below: First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam) (quotations in original); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. 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, 584 (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).

9. In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Act on December 31, 2006 (the "date last insured"), making the relevant time period for Plaintiff's application from April 23, 2003, the date of her alleged onset of disability, through the date last insured (R. at 18).*fn4 The ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: through the date last insured

(1) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity (id.); (2) Plaintiff's impairments of diffuse osteoarthritis (upper and lower extremities), status post left shoulder replacement, cervical/lumbar degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, allergies, and a thyroid disorder did constitute a "severe" combination of impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 18--20); (3) Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the Listing of Impairments (R. at 20); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work activity with certain restrictions*fn5 (R. at 20--21); and (5) Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work (R. at 29). However, after considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, and thus, Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time during the relevant time period. (R. at 29--31.)

10. Plaintiff raises two challenges to the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ's determination that her depression was not "severe" is erroneous. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied principally on evidence from consultative psychologist Dr. Kevin Duffy and from Plaintiff herself. (R. at 19--20; R. at 224--28.) A review of this evidence, as well as evidence in the record from the reports of Dr. Nicholas Varallo, Dr. Michael P. Hallett, Dr. Herman Szymanski, and the Veterans Administration clinic staff (the "VA"), and from ...

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