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Thomas Gordon v. Commissioner of Social Security

February 29, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCURN, Senior District Court Judge


This action was filed by the plaintiff Thomas Gordon ("plaintiff") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), who denied his application for disability benefits. Currently before the court is the plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. No. 7) seeking reversal of the Commissioner's decision and an order of remand for a new hearing, and the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. No. 10) seeking affirmation of the Commissioner's findings. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted.

I. Facts and Procedural History

The following facts are taken from plaintiff's statement of the case and are incorporated by the Commissioner in his brief, with the exception of any inferences or conclusions asserted by the plaintiff. The court has also supplemented the facts as it deemed necessary. References to the transcript which appear on the plaintiff's brief (Doc. No. 9) have been omitted. The plaintiff filed for Social Security Disability Benefits as a result of a schizoaffective disorder. A hearing was held in Binghamton, New York on July 2, 2009 before Administrative Law Judge Thomas P. Tielens ("ALJ"), where the plaintiff appeared and gave testimony. On July 30, 2009, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that the plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act.

At the time of the hearing, the plaintiff was 28 years of age. The plaintiff testified from jail, where he was incarcerated due to a probation violation for an underlying charge of drug possession. Plaintiff had dropped out of a substance abuse treatment program, resulting in the probation violation. Tr. 18. Plaintiff has obtained a GED. He served in the United States Army for less than two years when he was diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder, at which time he was discharged. He has been granted a 100% service related disability from the Veteran's Administration ("VA") for this disorder. Tr. 18. He also has a two year college degree in plumbing, heating, refrigeration and air conditioning. He has prior work experience in heating, ventilation and air conditioning ("HVAC"). He states he has difficulty working because he has trouble with people. He states that he is suspicious and paranoid and thinks people are trying to hurt him or kill him. He also has difficulty concentrating. He takes the medication Risperdal for his schizoaffective disorder. There are treatment notes totaling 355 pages from the VA, dated from 7/9/2004 through 10/14/2008. This total includes notes for inpatient treatment on four separate occasions. The plaintiff needed inpatient treatment after it was determined that he was a danger to himself or to others.

The record contains the report from the Department of Veterans Affairs finding an 100% service connected disability, which states that the Department of Veterans Affairs' review of the VA's treatment notes from 2003 indicate ongoing outpatient treatment for schizoaffective disorder. There were multiple psychiatric hospitalizations primarily for mental illness but often related to substance abuse. It was noted that the plaintiff had his first suicide attempt at age 14 and has had suicidal ideations since then. Reference was made to paranoia and occasional hallucinations. Full fledged psychotic symptoms were noted. Plaintiff had delusions of thinking he was invisible. The conclusion was that the plaintiff's symptoms were consistent with the diagnosis of chronic and quite severe schizoaffective disorder that is currently in the depressed phased. The report went on to state that an evaluation of 100% is assigned when there is evidence of total occupational and social impairment due to such symptoms as: gross impairment in thought processes or communication; persistent delusions or hallucinations; grossly inappropriate behavior; persistent danger of hurting self or others; intermittent inability to perform activities of daily living including maintenance of personal hygiene; disorientation to time or place; or memory loss for names of close relatives, own occupation or own name.

It is admitted that the plaintiff has a substance abuse problem. The ALJ concluded that if the plaintiff stopped substance use, he would be able to perform past relevant work as an HVAC laborer and therefore was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The issue before the court is whether the decision of the ALJ dated July 30, 2009, finding that the plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act, is against the substantial weight of evidence in this case.

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

This court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo, but instead "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) (internal citations omitted). See also Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004); Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). "Substantial evidence" is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Halloran, 362 F.3d at 31 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420 (1971)). "An ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Gravel v. Barnhart, 360 F.Supp.2d 442, 444-45 (N.D.N.Y. 2005) (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984)). When reviewing a determination by the Commissioner, a district court, in its discretion, "shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

B. Disability Defined

An individual is considered disabled for purposes of his or her eligibility for Social Security Disability if he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.] 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner may deem an individual applicant for Social Security Disability to be disabled only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process, by which the Commissioner is to determine whether an applicant for Social Security Disability is disabled pursuant to the aforementioned statutory definition. See 20 C.F.R. ยง ...

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