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Michael P. Tracy v. Michael J. Astrue

July 29, 2011


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


1. Plaintiff Michael P. Tracy challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled since April 16, 2005, as a result of seizures, intermittent explosive disorder, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and obesity. Plaintiff contends that his impairments render him unable to work, and thus, he is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on May 24, 2005. After his application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. ALJ Shire conducted a video hearing on July 22, 2008, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. Medical expert Dr. Edward Halperin and vocational expert Miriam Greene also testified at the hearing. ALJ Shire considered the case de novo, and on August 18, 2008, issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. On September 29, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.

3. Plaintiff filed this action challenging Defendant's final decision on November 5, 2009.*fn1 On April 12, 2010, Defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings on the same day. After full briefing, this Court deemed the motions submitted and reserved decision. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's 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 & 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 an 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 & 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 under the 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, and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled. 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S. Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1987)

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. Although the claimant has the burden of proof on 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 is 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, ALJ Shire made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period (R. at 18)*fn2 ; (2) Plaintiff's intermittent explosive disorder, obesity, sleep apnea, and asthma are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 18); (3) Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. at 19); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform medium work, with certain limitations*fn3 (R. at 20); (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work as a cashier (R. at 23); and (6) Plaintiff is a "younger individual" who retains a residual functional capacity to perform work available in the national economy (R. at 23-24). Ultimately, ALJ Shire concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Act at any time through the date of her decision.

(R. at 25). 10. Plaintiff first contends that ALJ Shire had a duty to recontact his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Tjoa, to clarify his medical opinions. In July 2005, Dr. Tjoa detailed Plaintiff's symptoms, treatment history, mental status, and functional abilities (R. at 177-83). He then concluded that, as for "work related mental activities," Plaintiff was "[u]nable to do gainful employment." (R. at 181). In July 2008, Dr. Tjoa completed a functional assessment as part of a medical source statement. (R. at 508-11). Dr. Tjoa indicated, by placing a mark in one of four columns corresponding to four levels of impairment, that Plaintiff suffered from a substantial loss of ability in a number of functional areas. (R. at 508-511). Plaintiff argues that ALJ Shire should not have discounted these two opinions without first seeking additional information from Dr. Tjoa. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's argument is unpersuasive.

Plaintiff correctly recognizes that an ALJ has an obligation to develop the administrative record, which includes, in certain circumstances, the duty to recontact a source of a claimant's medical evidence, sua sponte, to obtain additional information. Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 505 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 47 (2d Cir. 1996)); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(e) (2010); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(e) (2010) ("When the evidence we receive from your treating physician or psychologist or other medical source is inadequate for us to determine whether you are disabled, we will need additional information to reach a determination or a decision.") (emphasis added); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3) (2010); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(3) (2010) ("If the evidence is consistent but we do not have sufficient evidence to decide whether you are disabled, or if after weighing the evidence we decide we cannot reach a conclusion about whether you are disabled, we will try to obtain additional evidence . . . . ") (emphasis added).

The duty to recontact arises when an ALJ lacks sufficient evidence in the record to evaluate opinion evidence or make a disability determination, not necessarily when a treating physician's opinion is inconsistent with the rest of the record. Ayers v. Astrue, No. 08-CV-69A, 2009 WL 4571840 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2009) (citing Rebull v. Massanari, 240 F. Supp. 2d 265, 272 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) ("The fact that the record does not support the treating ...

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