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Lisa A. Meney v. Michael J. Astrue

June 22, 2011

LISA A. MENEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff appeals from a denial of disability insurance benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). The action is one brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner.

On February 13, 2006, plaintiff, then thirty-two years old, filed an application for Supplemental Security Income under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleged an inability to work since January 31, 1999, due to depression and cognitive deficiencies. Her application was initially denied on July 18, 2006. (T. 19). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on June 25, 2008 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") James E. Dombeck.The ALJ issued a decision on September 30, 2008, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 58-67). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which remanded the matter to ALJ Dombeck for additional proceedings -- specifically, a more detailed application of the special technique for evaluation of mental impairments. (T. 68, 76-77, 380). A second hearing was held April 22, 2009. On May 20, 2009, the ALJ issued a second decision, again concluding that plaintiff is not disabled. (T. 19-32). That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on February 4, 2010. (T. 5-7). Plaintiff now appeals. The Commissioner has moved (Dkt. #8) and plaintiff has cross moved (Dkt. #12) for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted, plaintiff's motion is denied, and the complaint is dismissed.

DISCUSSION

To determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ proceeds through a five-step sequential evaluation. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See 20 CFR §404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two, and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is "severe," e.g., that imposes significant restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 CFR §404.1520(c). If not, the analysis concludes with a finding of "not disabled." If so, the ALJ continues to step three.

At step three, the ALJ examines whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. If the impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and meets the durational requirement (20 CFR §404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, analysis proceeds to step four, and the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is the ability to perform physical or metal work activities on a sustained basis notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 CFR §404.1520(e), (f). Where, as here, the alleged disability implicates the plaintiff's mental abilities, the ALJ must assess it in light of the mental demands of work, including understanding, remembering and carrying out instructions, and responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and work pressures. See 20 CFR §416.945(c).

After the plaintiff's RFC has been determined, the ALJ turns to whether the claimant's RFC permits her to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled, by presenting evidence demonstrating that the claimant "retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy" in light of her age, education, and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir.1999) (quoting Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 604 (2d Cir.1986)). See 20 CFR §404.1560(c).

The Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir.2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). "The Court carefully 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.'" Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) quoting Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 33 (2d Cir.1997). Still, "it is not the function of a reviewing court to decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled." Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir.1999). "Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [this Court] will not substitute our judgment for that of the Commissioner." Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir.2002).

This deferential standard does not extend to the Commissioner's conclusions of law. See Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir.1984). This Court must independently determine if the Commissioner's decision applied the correct legal standards in determining that the plaintiff was not disabled. "Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal." Townley, 748 F.2d at 112. Therefore, this Court is to first review the legal standards applied, and then, if the standards were correctly applied, consider the substantiality of the evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir.1987) ("[w]here 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 also Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 504 (2d Cir.1998).

The ALJ issued a decision of some thirteen pages in length considering plaintiff's claim of disability, and supported each of his conclusions with detailed factual findings. Upon a full and thoughtful review of the record, including plaintiff's medical and educational records, I believe that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards, and that his finding that plaintiff is not totally disabled is supported by is substantial evidence.

The ALJ discussed the record in detail. I believe the evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff, then a thirty-two year old woman with a general equivalency diploma ("GED") and some college course work and with no appreciable work history, was not totally disabled, due to the ALJ's finding at step five that several positions existed in the economy that plaintiff could perform, including but not limited the unskilled positions of assembler (production), general assembler, lens matcher, addresser and table worker.

In determining plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered, inter alia, plaintiff's activities of daily living. The record, including plaintiff's testimony at the hearing, indicates that in addition to attending Monroe Community College ("MCC") part-time, plaintiff shops, takes care of her personal needs and those of at least two of her children who reside with her, prepares meals, does dishes and laundry, pays bills, attends church services, goes to the library and community center, and generally accomplishes all of the tasks necessary to manage her household with little assistance. (T. 28, 115-123). Although plaintiff claimed at her hearing that she had discontinued a prior job attempt due to her "disabilities," contemporaneous Social Security and psychiatric examination records quote plaintiff as telling a claims representative and a consultative examiner that she left work, partly or solely, to care for her children. (T. 28, 107, 207). In light of plaintiff's self-reports of her daily activities and her academic history, I find that the ALJ's determination that her subjective and largely non-specific complaints of total and continued disability were "not credible" was proper and supported by substantial evidence.

The ALJ also examined plaintiff's educational records and the reports of her treating, examining and consulting physicians. His conclusion that plaintiff's claimed mental disabilities do not render her disabled for purposes of the Act is largely consistent with those reports, as described below.

In determining the plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ notably rejected the opinions of plaintiff's longtime treating psychologist, Dr. Keri Barnett ("Dr. Barnett") and her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Patricia Pielnik ("Dr. Pielnik"), declining to afford them controlling weight. It is well-settled that "the medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is given controlling weight if it is well supported by medical findings and not inconsistent with other substantial record evidence." Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 134 (2d Cir. 2000)(emphasis added). See 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1527(d)(2). In determining the weight owed to a treating physician's opinion, the Commissioner must consider: (1) the length, nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (2) the frequency of examination; (3) the evidence presented to support the treating physician's opinion; (4) whether the opinion is consistent with the record as whole; and (5) whether the opinion is offered by a specialist. 20 C.F.R. ...


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