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Theresa v. Michael J. Astrue

August 3, 2012

THERESA WALKER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff appeals from a denial of disability benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). The action is one brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner.

June 9, 2006, plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleged an inability to work since May 12, 1998, due to carpal tunnel syndrome, pain in the neck, shoulder and right wrist, high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (T. 32, 76, 166). Her application was initially denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on May 4, 2009 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") John P. Costello. (T. 46-89).The ALJ issued a partially favorable decision on June 29, 2009, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act prior to December 8, 2008, but that she was disabled after that date. (T. 27-43). That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on December 13, 2010 (T. 4-7). Plaintiff now appeals.

Plaintiff has moved, and the Commissioner has cross moved, for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion (Dkt. #6) is denied, the Commissioner's cross motion (Dkt. #9) is granted, and the complaint is dismissed.

DISCUSSION

An ALJ proceeds though a prescribed five-step evaluation in determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ determines 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 continues to step two, and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is "severe," e.g., that imposes significant restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 CFR §404.1520(c). 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, the ALJ's 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).

The ALJ then turns to whether the claimant's RFC permits him to perform the requirements of his 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 his 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(c).

The Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is

supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ has 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). "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).

The same level of deference does not encompass the Commissioner's conclusions of law. See Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir.1984). This Court must independently determine if the Commissioner's decision applied the correct legal standards in determining that the plaintiff was not disabled. "Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal." Townley, 748 F.2d at 112. Therefore, this Court first examines the legal standards applied, and then, if the standards were correctly applied, considers the substantiality of the evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir.1987). See also Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 504 (2d Cir.1998).

The ALJ's decision discusses the bases for plaintiff's claim of disability at length, and identifies the record evidence supporting each of his findings. Upon a full review of the record, I believe that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.

I also find that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff, then a forty-nine year old woman with a high school education and some college, and past relevant work in as a contact lens operator (inspector and/or polisher) and utility operation (transporting supplies in a manufacturing plant), was not totally disabled prior to December 8, 2008,*fn1 due to the ALJ's finding that the plaintiff was capable of performing the full range of sedentary work, with limitations to occasional reaching, handling and fingering, engagement only in simple tasks, occasional interaction with the general public and up to frequent contact with co-workers. (T. 39, 50-51, 64-65). When presented with this RFC, vocational expert Julie Andrews testified that plaintiff could perform the position of surveillance monitor. (T. 39, 70). The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments including bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, arthritis in her knees, and obesity. (T. ...


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