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Sharon A. Williams v. Michael J. Astrue

March 30, 2012

SHARON A. WILLIAMS, 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 Sharon A. Williams challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled due to C5-6 and L3-4 disc herniations and asthma since March 1, 2005. Plaintiff contends that her impairments render her unable to work. She therefore asserts that she is entitled to supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed Title II and Title XVI applications on March 5, 2007, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2005. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied Plaintiff's initial applications. Plaintiff then requested a hearing. An administrative hearing was held on April 17, 2009 before ALJ Timothy M. McGuan, at which Plaintiff appeared and testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on May 21, 2009, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which, on June 1, 2010, denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on June 17, 2010, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On January 18, 2011, the Commissioner and Plaintiff both filed motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Briefing on the motions concluded February 18, 2011, 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 Plaintiff'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," 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 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.

8. Although the claimant has the burden of proof as to 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 of this inquiry is, in turn, 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, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 5, 2007 (R. at 16);*fn2 (2) Plaintiff's C5-6 and L3-4 disc herniations and asthma are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the regulations (id.); (3) Plaintiff 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 (R. at 17.); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) with several limitations (R. at 19);*fn3 and (5) considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform (R. at 22). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Act from March 5, 2007, through May 21, 2009, the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 23.)

10. Plaintiff advances five challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in not recontacting her treating physician. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly assess the opinion of her treating physician pursuant to SSR 96-2p. Third, the ALJ's RFC assessment was not well-supported by substantial evidence. Fourth, the ALJ substituted his opinion for that of competent expert medical opinion. Fifth, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's subjective complaints. Although these challenges are presented separately, many raise similar, or even identical arguments, and conflate others. This Court will nevertheless strive to address them sequentially.

11. Plaintiff's first challenge is that the ALJ erred in not, sua sponte, recontacting her treating physician, Dr. Seth Zeidman.*fn4 Plaintiff asserts that because Dr. Zeidman found her "temporarily totally disabled," the ALJ was required to recontact the physician to ascertain the basis of his opinions, before according them only limited weight. Plaintiff further asserts that failure to recontact Dr. Zeidman leaves her with no understanding of why her treating physician would find her disabled, but a government agency would not. Additionally, Plaintiff argues that a finding of total disability by Dr. Zeidman implies that whatever, necessarily severe, functional limitations he would have identified, had he been recontacted by the ALJ, would support her subjective complaints. This, in turn, would bolster her fifth challenge, that the ALJ improperly assessed her credibility.

12. An ALJ has an obligation to develop the administrative record, including, in certain circumstances, recontacting 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)). The duty to recontact arises only where an ALJ lacks sufficient evidence to evaluate opinion evidence or make a disability determination. 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 physician's opinion does not mean that there are administrative gaps in the record triggering a duty to recontact.")); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(e); 29 C.F.R. § 416.912(e) ("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."); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. ...


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