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Luis E. Rodriguez v. Michael J. Astrue

February 23, 2012

LUIS E. RODRIGUEZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

DECISION AND ORDER

1. Plaintiff, Luis Rodriguez, challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Rodriguez alleges that he has been disabled since June 5, 2009. Specifically, he alleges that the effects of major depressive disorder ("MDD"), post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), fibromyalgia, and neuropathy render him unable to work. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to benefits under the Act.

2. Rodriguez filed an application for disability and supplemental security benefits under Title II of the Act on September 3, 2008. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied his application, and as result, he requested an administrative hearing. He received that hearing before ALJ Marilyn Zahm on March 3, 2011. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on March 23, 2011, she issued a decision denying Rodriguez's application for benefits. Rodriguez filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, but the Council denied that request, prompting him to file the current civil action on February 16, 2012, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On July 30, 2012, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rodriguez followed suit on November 28, 2012. Briefing on the motions concluded January 2, 2013, at which time this Court took the motions under advisement without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Rodriguez'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 & 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"; 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 may 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 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, 140-142, 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); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, but 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).

8. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Rodriguez has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date (R. 21);*fn2 (2) he suffers from four severe impairments, including MDD, PTSD, fibromyalgia, and neuropathy (id.); (3) he does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the criteria necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the regulations (id.); (4) he has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "light work," with the modification that he avoid extended contact with others (id., 22); and (5) there are jobs in the national economy that Rodriguez can perform (id., 29). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Rodriguez was not under a disability as defined by the Act from his onset date through the date of her decision. (Id., 30--31.)

9. Rodriguez raises two challenges to the ALJ's decision: First, he argues that the ALJ did not properly consider the opinion of his treating psychiatrists. Second, he contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate his credibility. Each argument is discussed, and rejected, below.

10. Under the "treating physician's rule,"*fn3 the ALJ must give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion when that opinion is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99 (2d Cir. 2003); Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 134 (2d Cir. 2000).

11. Rodriguez points to the opinions of Dr. Ramon O. Martinez, who, in April of 2009 diagnosed Rodriguez with MDD and assigned him a Global Assessment Functioning ("GAF") score of 50, and Dr. Alfonso Tan, who treated Rodriguez on a monthly basis and who diagnosed him with PSTD.*fn4 Dr. Martinez, in particular, found Rodriguez unable to work. (R. 422.) As such, Rodriguez argues that the ALJ should have adopted these opinions under the treating physician's rule and concluded that his psychiatric ailments precluded gainful activity.

12. The ALJ, however, committed no error in declining to adopt these opinions. Contrary to Rodriguez's argument that ALJ Zahm "fail[ed] to evaluate the opinion[s] of the claimant's treating specialists[,] Drs. Martinez and Tan" (Pl.'s Br. At 12; Docket No. 17-1), ALJ ...


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