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Cheryl Ann Sublette v. Michael J. Astrue

April 13, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge


In this action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), plaintiff Cheryl Ann Sublette ("plaintiff") appeals from the Commissioner's denial of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

On April 15, 2003, November 15, 2003, July 6, 2005 and August 23, 2006, plaintiff, 44 years old at the time of her initial application, applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleged an inability to work since April 1, 2001. Each of those applications was denied initially, and on reconsideration. (T. 36-45). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on July 17, 2008 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robert E. Gale. (T. 1014-1047). The ALJ issued a decision on July 17, 2008, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 19-35). That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 2, 2010, when the Appeals Council denied review. (T. 11-15). Plaintiff now appeals.

Plaintiff was subsequently granted SSI benefits on an application which post-dated the ALJ's decision, with an onset date of February 1, 2009. Plaintiff has now indicated, however, on this appeal, that she is "amenable" to adjusting her alleged onset date to March 31, 2008, the date her insured status expired. (T. 1003, Dkt. #12-1 at 33). In light of the dearth of medical evidence concerning plaintiff's alleged severe physical and mental limitations for the period prior to late 2007 or early 2008, the Court accepts plaintiff's request to consider her application, but with the later onset date of March 31, 2008.*fn1 Thus, the Court will consider plaintiff's claims of disability solely for the period between March 31, 2008 and February 1, 2009.

The Commissioner has moved (Dkt. #11), and the plaintiff has cross moved (Dkt. #12), for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c). For the reasons discussed below, plaintiff's motion is granted, the Commissioner's motion is denied, and the matter is remanded solely for the calculation and payment of benefits.


I. Analysis of Disability Claims

Determination of whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act requires an ALJ to follow a now-familiar five-step analytical sequence. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See 20 CFR §404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two, and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is "severe" within the meaning of the Act. 20 CFR §404.1520©. If not, the analysis concludes with a finding of "not disabled." If so, the ALJ continues to step three.

At step three, the ALJ examines whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. If the impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and meets the durational requirement (20 CFR §404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, analysis proceeds to step four, and the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is the ability to perform physical or metal work activities on a sustained basis, notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 CFR §404.1520(e), (f). Then, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's RFC permits her to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled, by presenting evidence demonstrating that the claimant "retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy" in light of her age, education, and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir.1999) (quoting Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 604 (2d Cir.1986)). See 20 CFR §404.1560©.

The Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir.2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It 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) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). "The Court carefully considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides 'because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.'" Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) quoting Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 33 (2d Cir.1997). Still, "it is not the function of a reviewing court to decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled." Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir.1999). "Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [this Court] will not substitute our judgment for that of the Commissioner." Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir.2002).

II. The ALJ's Decision

ALJ Gale's decision analyzes the medical evidence of record, and explicitly applies the "special technique" prescribed for claims of physical and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3).

The ALJ first considered plaintiff's claims of disability caused by a combination of degenerative disc disease and depression, which the ALJ determined together constituted a severe impairment not meeting or equaling a listed impairment. In so finding, the ALJ rejected plaintiff's claims of fibromyalgia, among other conditions, as "not medically determinable." (T. 26).

In analyzing the pertinent evidence of plaintiff's exertional limitations, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform a full range of light work: she could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and ...

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