The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court
1. Plaintiff, Antoinetta Castaldo, 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 severe anxiety disorder since May 24, 2007. Plaintiff contends that her impairment renders her unable to work. She therefore asserts that she is entitled to disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Act.
2. Plaintiff filed an application under Title II for DIB on August 31, 2007, alleging disability beginning May 24, 2007. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied Plaintiff's initial application. Plaintiff then requested a hearing. An administrative hearing was held on August 18, 2009 and November 18, 2009 before ALJ Eric L. Glazer, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on December 23, 2009, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which, on March 7, 2011, denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on April 15, 2011, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1
3. On December 1, 2011 Defendant filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Briefing on that motion concluded on April 23, 2012, at which time this Court took the motion under advisement without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted.
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 May 24, 2007 (R. at
13);*fn2 (2) Plaintiff has a number of "severe"
impairments within the meaning of the regulations (id.);*fn3
(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 with some limitations (R. at 18);*fn4 and
(5) considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC,
there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national
economy that she could perform (R. at 26). Ultimately, the
ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the
Act from May 24, 2007, through December 23, 2009, the date of the
ALJ's decision. (R. at 27.)
10. Plaintiff advances two challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the medical evidence from her three treating physicians, Dr. Joshua Usen, Dr. Stephen Skiffington, and Dr. M.S. Rahman. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ mischaracterized Plaintiff's testimony.
11. As to Plaintiff's first challenge, this Court must separately consider whether the ALJ properly applied the "treating physician's rule" to each of her three doctors.*fn5 Under that rule, the ALJ must give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion when that opinion is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003); Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 134 (2d Cir. 2000).
Generally, "the Social Security Administration is required to explain the weight it gives to the opinions of a treating physician." Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 132 ...