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Mary Jackson-Mcwilson v. Michael J. Astrue

July 28, 2012

MARY JACKSON-MCWILSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

1. Plaintiff Mary Jackson-McWilson 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 since September 3, 2007, due to bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, and mood disorder/depression. Plaintiff contends that her impairments render her unable to work. She therefore asserts that she is entitled to payment of disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits on November 7, 2007. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her application on March 28, 2008. On January 26, 2010, ALJ William Pietz held an administrative hearing, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. On February 12, 2010, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 24, 2011. Plaintiff then filed the current civil action challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On February 23 and 24, 2012, respectively, Defendant and Plaintiff filed Cross Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 10 and 12.) After full briefing, this Court deemed the motions submitted and reserved decision.

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 and 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); Aubeuf v. Schweiker, 649 F.2d 107, 111-12 (2d Cir. 1981). Substantial evidence is that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," or "what a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Diaz v. Shalala, 59 F.3d 307, 314 (2d Cir. 1995). 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 will 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 and 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 ("RFC") 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) (quotations in original); 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 September 3, 2007, the alleged onset date of her disability (R. at 16);*fn2 (2) Plaintiff's bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, and mood disorder/depression are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 16); (3) Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. at 17-18); (4) Plaintiff retains the RFC for light or sedentary work in that she can lift up to 20 pounds, frequently walk or stand, follow simple instructions, and occasionally work with others, but is limited in the use of her hands for fine and gross activities to five minutes at a time (R. at 18, 20); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b); and (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work because she can no longer use her hands for more than five minutes at a time. (R. at 21.) Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is able to work in a significant number of jobs in the national economy. (R. at 22.) Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time through the date of his February 12, 2010 decision. (R. at 23.)

10. Plaintiff's first challenge to the ALJ's decision is that he erred at step three of his analysis by failing to find that her bilateral carpal tunnel impairment meets or medically equals 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Listing 11.14, for impairment of peripheral neuropathies. The ...


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