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Patora B. Modest v. Michael J. Astrue

March 20, 2012


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



Plaintiff Patora Modest ("Plaintiff" or "Modest") filed an application for disability insurance benefits on January 26, 1998. In the ensuing 11 years, she appeared before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Manuel Cofresi for a series of hearings, culminating first in the denial of her application. The Appeals Council then denied Plaintiff's request for review. Thereafter, she filed an action in this Court, styled Modest v. Barnhart, 02CV5018, which this Court subsequently remanded for further development of the record. A second wave of hearings took place before ALJ Cofresi and on February 7, 2007, he again determined that Plaintiff is not disabled (the "ALJ's Decision"). (Tr. at 558-581.) The Appeals Council denied her request for review and on January 7, 2009, she filed the instant action.

The facts and circumstances surrounding Plaintiff's claim are set forth in greater detail in the ALJ's Decision. On account of both the voluminousity of the record and the lack of dispute as to its contents, familiarity therewith is assumed. Briefly, Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident on December 20, 1996 and suffered injuries to her neck and back. According to her testimony, over the course of her treatment for these conditions, her overall condition declined, and her initial injuries were compounded by knee pain, depression, fibromyalgia, and thyroid, estrogen and gynecological problems. Plaintiff testified that she is consequently unable to work.

The ALJ considered evidence from at least 10 physicians, including three identified by Plaintiff as her treating physicians. The ALJ also heard testimony of two vocational experts who concluded that Plaintiff is nevertheless capable of performing sedentary work and is therefore not disabled.


Scope of Review

Judicial review of disability insurance benefit determinations is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (1996), which expressly incorporates the standards established by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(1996). In relevant part, § 405(g) provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]" Thus, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by "substantial evidence" and there are no other legal or procedural deficiencies, then his decision must be affirmed. The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" to connote "more than a mere scintilla[;] [i]t 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). "In determining whether substantial evidence supports a finding of the Secretary, the court must not look at the supporting evidence in isolation, but must view it in light of other evidence in the record that might detract from such a finding, including any contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences may be drawn." Rivera v. Sullivan, 771 F. Supp. 1339, 1351 (S.D.N.Y. 1991). Finally, "[t]he burden of proving disability is on the claimant." Mimms v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 180, 185 (2d Cir. 1984).

Disability Determinations

In order to qualify for disability insurance, a claimant must be deemed "disabled" as the term is defined in 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c (1996).

A person is "disabled" when: he 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 twelve months.

42 U.S.C.A. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(A) (1997) (emphasis added). A "physical or mental impairment" consists of "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic technique." 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 423(d)(3); 1382c(a)(3)(D). Nonetheless, an individual shall be determined to be under a disability 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.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B) (emphasis added). The Commissioner determines whether a claimant meets the statutory definition of "disabled" in five, successive steps. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (1996); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). These steps analyze whether Plaintiff is currently working, suffering from an impairment automatically deemed "severe;" capable of returning to a prior trade and/or capable of obtaining employment in other fields. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

In this case, Plaintiff argues that, in determining that her impairments do not preclude her from performing a sedentary job, the ALJ ignored evidence that her treating physicians found her to be totally disabled. Because Plaintiff makes this argument in a ...

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