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Colleen Ann Vanhorn v. Michael J. Astrue

March 31, 2012

COLLEEN ANN VANHORN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. INTRODUCTION

In March of 2007, Plaintiff Colleen Ann VanHorn filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since March of 2007 due to physical impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's claim.

Plaintiff, by and through her attorneys, Conboy McKay Bachman & Kendall, LLP, Lawrence D. Hasseler, Esq., of counsel, commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

The Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket No. 15).

II. BACKGROUND

The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff applied for benefits on March 29, 2007, alleging disability beginning on March 5, 2007. (T at 42, 85).*fn1 The application was denied initially and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held in Canton, New York, before ALJ Elizabeth W. Koennecke on May 27, 2009.*fn2 (T at 19). Plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. (T at 22-38).

On July 23, 2009, ALJ Koennecke issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and was therefore not entitled to benefits. (T at 9-18). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on August 7, 2010, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-5).

Plaintiff, through counsel, timely commenced this action on August 24, 2010.(Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on December 13, 2010. (Docket No. 9). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on January 19, 2011. (Docket No. 12). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on March 7, 2011. (Docket No. 17).

Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.*fn3

For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that the Commissioner's motion be denied, Plaintiff's motion be granted, and this case be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

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 only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir.1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); 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 evidence that 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).

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).

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. §§ 416.920, 404.1520. 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, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.*fn4

While 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 (2d Cir.1984).

The final step of the inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her 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. §§ 416.920(g); 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2012. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 5, 2007, the alleged onset date. (T at 11). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments: fibromyalgia, lumbar degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and obesity. (T at 12).

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments found in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). (T at 13). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work, as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567 (a). (T at 13-17).

The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a cashier or nurse's aide. (T at 17). However, considering Plaintiff's age (40 years old as of the alleged onset of disability), education (high school), and residual functional capacity, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (T at 17). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act and was therefore not entitled to benefits. (T at 18). As noted above, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on August 7, 2010, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-5).

2. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed. She offers five (5) principal arguments in support of this position. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have concluded that her impairment met or medically equaled an impairment set forth in the Listings. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly assess the medical evidence of record. Third, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her credibility. Fourth, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment was flawed. Fifth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's conclusion regarding the existence of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform is not supported by substantial evidence. This Court will address each argument in turn.

a. Listing-Level Impairment

If a claimant suffers from an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the impairments contained in the Listings, the claimant will be considered disabled.

Specifically, the impairments listed in Appendix 1 of the Social Security Regulations (the "Listings") are "acknowledged by the [Commissioner] to be of sufficient severity to preclude" substantial gainful activity. Accordingly, a claimant who meets or equals a Listing impairment is "conclusively presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits." Dixon v. Shalala, 54 F.3d 1019, 1022 (2d Cir.1995); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) ("If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled.").

The claimant bears the burden of establishing that his or her impairments match a Listing or are equal in severity to a Listing. See Naegele v. Barnhart, 433 F. Supp.2d 319, 324 (W.D.N.Y. 2006) ("It must be remembered that plaintiff has the ...


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