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Eugene Hatcher v. Michael J. Astrue

July 5, 2011

EUGENE HATCHER, 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 Supplemental Security Income and 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 August 1, 2006, plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleged an inability to work since July 25, 2006, due to knee and back pain, lightheadedness, fatigue, and HIV infection. (T. 98). His applications were initially denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on April 2, 2009 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Mark Hecht. (T. 20-38).The ALJ issued a decision on May 6, 2009, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 9-19). That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on May 18, 2010 (T. 1-9). Plaintiff now appeals. On February 4, 2011, both the Commissioner and plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion (Dkt. #5) is granted, plaintiff's motion (Dkt. #6) is denied, and the complaint is dismissed.

DISCUSSION

An ALJ proceeds though a prescribed five-step evaluation in determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ determines 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 continues 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, the ALJ's 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).

The ALJ then turns to whether the claimant's RFC permits him to perform the requirements of his 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 his 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 has 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). "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).

The same level of deference does not encompass 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 first examines the legal standards applied, and then, if the standards were correctly applied, considers the substantiality of the evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir.1987). See also Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 504 (2d Cir.1998).

The ALJ's decision discusses plaintiff's claim of disability at length, and identifies the record evidence supporting each of his findings. Upon a full and thoughtful review of the record, I believe that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.

I also find that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff, then a fifty-year-old man with a high school education and previous work as a construction worker, housekeeper, mason, tent setup/caterer, smoke house operator, potato picker bottle assembler, waste management worker, furniture assembly worker, and Walmart bag carrier, was not totally disabled, due to the ALJ's finding that the plaintiff is capable of performing a complete range of work at the light exertional level.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments including a right knee disorder, chronic proteinuria (excess protein in the urine), asymptomatic HIV infection, and low back pain. (T. 14-15). At the hearing, plaintiff testified that his primary complaints were right knee and back pain, and that he did not believe that any of his other conditions would affect his ability to return to work. (T. 34).

Plaintiff's treatment records reflect a pattern of intermittent complaints of lower back pain, and to a lesser extent knee and/or shoulder pain, treated with limited success through medications and cortisone injections by several different physicians, but no appreciable physical limitations.

Since 2007, plaintiff treated regularly with certified physicians' assistant Amy Kallio. In determining the plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ rejected Ms. Kallio's opinion, as well as a check-sheet completed by Dr. Padma Parthasarathy, a physician in the same practice as Ms. Kallio, and declined to afford them controlling or significant weight. Instead, the ALJ relied upon the opinions of consultative examiner Dr. Ramon Medalle, as well as the treatment records by plaintiff's other treating physicians and medical ...


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