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Sylvia Garcia v. Michael J. Astrue

December 5, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Block, Senior District Judge:


Plaintiff Sylvia Garcia seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for benefits under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Both parties move for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed; accordingly, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Garcia's complaint is dismissed.


Garcia claims that she suffers from liver disease, cirrhosis, asthma, arthritis, high blood pressure and impairments of the back, neck, hands, left elbow and left knee. She filed an application for supplemental security income on September 5, 2006. After the Social Security Administration denied her application, Garcia requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

Applying the familiar five-step process, the ALJ first found that Garcia had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 11, 2006. Second, the ALJ found that Garcia suffers from medically determinable "severe impairments": alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD") and arthritis. Third, the ALJ considered whether Garcia's impairments met the criteria listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix and found that they did not. The ALJ stated that Garcia's liver impairment "falls short of meeting listing 5.05 A or B" because, notwithstanding her two hospitalizations, "[t]he requirement. . . that the liver disease be chronic and apparent on evaluation at least 60 days apart and within a consecutive six month period is not satisfied. Nor did the claimant require a blood transfusion secondary to hemorrhaging." A.R. at 11. Fourth, the ALJ determined that Garcia had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of sedentary work, although "[d]ue to the claimant's asthma, she should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, humidity, dust, chemicals, smoke and other respiratory irritants." Id. at 12.

Finally, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Garcia can perform. The ALJ relied upon the Medical-Vocational Guidelines contained in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2-- commonly referred to as "grids"-- as a framework for her decision-making, rather than consulting a vocational expert. She found that based upon Garcia's age, education and previous work experience, Medical- Vocational Rule 201.24 compelled a finding that Garcia was not disabled.

On August 11, 2008, the ALJ issued her decision concluding that Garcia is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. On June 24, 2010, the Appeals Council denied her request for review, rendering the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits final. Garcia timely sought judicial review.


"In reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner, a district court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 384 (2d Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). While the plaintiff bears the burden of proof for the first four steps of the inquiry, at step five there is a "limited burden shift to the Commissioner" to "show that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do." Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009).

Garcia challenges the Commissioner's decision on three grounds: (1) that the ALJ's evaluation of Garcia's RFC was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ "improperly discounted [Garcia's] credible testimony regarding fatigue and the medical report of her treating physician"*fn1 ; (2) that the ALJ erred by not considering testimony from a vocational expert; and (3) that additional medical reports submitted to the Appeals Council, after the ALJ issued her decision, warrant remand. Pl's Mem. of Law at 13. The Court addresses each of these arguments in turn.

A. Substantial Evidence

Garcia's claim that there is no substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision is based upon her argument that the ALJ ignored evidence of Garcia's subjective complaints of joint pain and fatigue. There is a two-step inquiry to evaluate the credibility of subjective complaints. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). First, the ALJ must determine whether the medical signs or laboratory findings show that the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1). Second, the ALJ must evaluate the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the claimant's symptoms, which requires the ALJ to make a credibility finding based on the entire record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1)-(4).

Contrary to Garcia's assertions, it is evident that the ALJ properly followed this two-step inquiry, basing her analysis on a reasonable interpretation of the full administrative record. First, the ALJ determined that Garcia's impairment could reasonably be expected to produce her subjective complaints of pain and fatigue. Second, however, the ALJ determined that the nature of Garcia's pain and fatigue did not preclude "a capacity for sedentary exertion." A.R. at 14. In making this determination, the ALJ considered the following.

The ALJ's decision refers to evidence of the extent to which Garcia's impairments, including her joint pain, asthma and fatigue, limited daily activities such as walking and standing. It is also clear that the ALJ carefully reviewed Garcia's medical records, including records of hospital visits and prescription medications. The decision covers several pages reviewing Garcia's ailments and her treating physician's diagnosis. Although the treating physician noted the presence of fatigue, stating that Garcia became fatigued after walking one city block, in the same report he stated that Garcia could sit with no limitation and stand or walk for up to six hours per day. The consulting physician similarly concluded that Garcia's abilities were largely unrestricted. The administrative record also shows that "apart from the two hospitalizations in late July 2006, the claimant has not undergone much subsequent ...

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