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James A. Whitehill v. Michael J. Astrue

June 30, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court


1. Plaintiff, James A. Whitehill, challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Whitehill alleges that he has been disabled since January of 2007 due to mental impairments including learning disability, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression, and that these impairments render him unable to work. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to disability insurance benefits under the Act.

2. Whitehill filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Act on July 27, 2007, alleging an inability to work since January 31, 2007 due to depression, tailbone cyst, and GERD. Whitehill's initial application was denied. In addition, agency records indicated that Whitehill did not have sufficient quarters of coverage for disability insurance benefits. He requested an administrative hearing, which was held on November 9, 2009 before ALJ Timothy M. McGuan. Whitehill was represented by counsel and testified. The ALJ considered Whitehill's claim, de novo, as one for supplemental security income benefits, and, on November 20, 2009, issued a decision denying the application for benefits. Whitehill filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, but the Council denied his request on June 1, 2011. Whitehill then filed the current civil action on June 16, 2011, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On November 14, 2011, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Whitehill followed suit by filing his own motion for judgment on the pleadings on November 30, 2011. The Commissioner filed a response/reply on December 14, 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 Whitehill'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"; 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 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) Whitehill engaged in substantial gainful activity from February 2008 through April 2008 (R. 16);*fn2 (2) Whitehill has three severe impairments: "learning disability ("LD"), post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") and an adjustment disorder with depressed mood (id.); (3) Whitehill 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 (id. 16-17); (4) Whitehill retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at all exertional levels, with the non-exertional limitations of: can occasionally understand, remember and carry out complex and detailed tasks, and occasionally interact with the public (id. 17-20); and (5) considering Whitehill's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform (id. 21). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Whitehill was not under a disability as defined by the Act from July 27, 2007 through November 20, 2009, the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. 24.)

10. Whitehill raises two challenges here. First, he argues that the Appeals Council failed to consider and make a part of the record new medical evidence submitted after the ALJ's decision. And second, Whitehill asserts that the ALJ's RFC assessment did not consider the impact of his mental impairment on all functional limitations.

11. In support of his first argument, Whitehill states that, on April 4, 2011, he submitted to the Appeals Council records from Spectrum Human Services and Mercy Hospital which contain, respectively, additional mental health diagnoses and treatment notes regarding his physical injuries. (Docket No. 13-1 at 9, 11.) He argues that the Appeals Council failed to make this evidence part of the record, and failed to consider the evidence, such that remand is required. (id. at 9, 11-12.)

12. If a claimant submits to the Appeals Council new and material evidence that relates to a period before the ALJ's decision, "the Appeals Council 'shall evaluate the entire record including the new material evidence submitted . . . [and] then review the case if it finds that the administrative law judge's action, findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence ...

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