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Steven E. Chiaravalle v. Michael J. Astrue

August 31, 2012


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


1. Plaintiff, Steven E. Chiaravalle, challenges an Administrative Law Judge's (hereinafter "ALJ") determination that he is not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act (hereinafter "the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that he is disabled by bipolar disorder, sever anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, depression, herniated and bulging disks in his lower back, metal plate with screws in his left elbow, scoliosis, spinal stenosis, and asthma. (R. 104.) Plaintiff contends that his impairments render him unable to work. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to payment of Supplemental Security Income (hereinafter "SSI") disability benefits.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on April 22, 2010, alleging an onset date of April 9, 2010. (R. 88.) The Commissioner denied the application on July 29, 2010. (R. 55-58.) ALJ Timothy McGuan held an administrative hearing on February 14, 2011, at which Plaintiff and his mother appeared without counsel and testified. (R. 59-61; R. 26-47.) ALJ McGuan considered the case de novo, and on March 4, 2011, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSI benefits. (R. 11-25.) On June 28, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on July 15, 2011, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1 (R. 5-7.)

3. On January 25 and 28, 2012, the Commissioner and Plaintiff filed Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 6, 8.) After full briefing, this Court took the motions under advisement without oral argument.

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. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998); see also 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 evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971), and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. 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. While 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 April 9, 2010 (R. at 13);*fn2 (2) Plaintiff suffers from serve impairments including L2-3 disc bulge, L4-5 disc herniation, L5-D1 shallow broad based herniation, scoliosis, left elbow fracture requiring surgical repair, asthma, depression, and social anxiety (R. 14); (3) Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416926) (R. 14); (4) Plaintiff has no exceptional limitations, has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, can occasionally push and pull with upper extremities but not more than 20 pounds, should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, dust, odors, and temperature extremes, cannot interact with the public (R. 17-23); and (5) Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. 23.) Based upon his review of the entire record, including Plaintiff's age, education, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform work that existed in the national economy. (R. 24.) Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, since April 22, 2010, the date he filed his application. (R. 25.)

10. Plaintiff lodges six challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, he contends that the ALJ failed to include all of his functional limitations and impairments when he posed hypothetical questions to the vocational expert. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the hypothetical questions did not contain the same limitations found by Dr. Santarpia and Dr. Andrews. Plaintiff maintains that his limitations, considered together, could disqualify him from the available employment positions outlined by the vocational expert. In Plaintiff's view, the omission of these key limitations constitutes reversible error.

11. A vocational expert's testimony concerning available employment in the national and local economy is beneficial only if it reflects a plaintiffs' actual limitations. Aubeuf v. Schweiker, 649 F.2d 107, 114 (2d Cir. 1981); see also Mathews v. Barnhart, 220 F. Supp. 2d 171, 175 (W.D.N.Y. 2002) (citing Bradley v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 760, 763 (8th Cir.1986) ("Vocational testimony elicited by hypothetical questions that fail to relate with precision to the physical and mental impairments of a claimant is not substantial evidence on which an ALJ may base a decision."))

12. Here, the ALJ questioned the vocational expert on the particular limitations found by both Dr. Santarpia and Dr. Andrews. Dr. Santarpia concluded that "The claimant is able to follow and understand simple directions and instructions, perform simple tasks independently, maintain attention and concentration, maintain a regular schedule, learn new tasks within normal limits. Mild impairment is demonstrated in performing complex tasks ...

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