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Knight v. Astrue

United States District Court, N.D. New York

September 11, 2012

MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

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For Llewelyn M. Knight, Plaintiff: Howard D. Olinsky, LEAD ATTORNEY, Olinsky Law Group, Syracuse, NY.

For Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Karen G. Fiszer, Robert R. Schriver, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Social Security Administration, Office of Regional General Counsel, Region II, New York, NY.

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Victor E. Bianchini, United States Magistrate Judge.


In February of 2007, Plaintiff Llewelyn M. Knight applied for disability insurance benefits (" DIB" ) under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since August of 2006 due to herniated and bulging discs and cervical spondylosis. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's application.

Plaintiff, by and through his attorneys, Olinsky and Shurtliff, Jaya A. Shurtliff, Esq., of counsel, commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § § 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3). The parties, by and through their respective counsel, consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge on November 28, 2011. (Docket No. 21).


The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows:

On February 20 2007, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that he had been unable to work since July 1, 2006. (T at 12, 50, 117).[1] The Commissioner initially denied the application and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ). A hearing was held in Syracuse, New York, on October 2, 2008, before ALJ Michael W. Devlin. (T at 26). Plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. (T at 26-49). During the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to August 9, 2006. (T at 28-29).

On November 19, 2008, ALJ Devlin issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time period and denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits. (T at 12-23). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on March 27, 2009, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-3).

Plaintiff, by and through his attorney, timely commenced this action by filing a Complaint on May 6, 2009. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on October 23, 2009. (Docket No. 9).

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Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on December 7, 2009. (Docket No. 11). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on February 4, 2010. (Docket No. 16).

Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.[2]

For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is denied, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and this case is dismissed.


A. Legal Standard

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 only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir.1987) (" Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles." ); 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 evidence that 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).

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).

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. § § 416.920, 404.1520. 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, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.[3]

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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 (2d Cir.1984).

The final step of the inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her 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. § § 416.920(g); 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 9, 2006, the amended alleged onset date. (T at 14).

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following impairment considered " severe" under the applicable Social Security Regulations (the " Regulations" ): " low back (herniated/bulging discs L3, L4, and L5) and neck (cervical spondylosis) [pain]." (T at 14). However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or equal one of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the Regulations (the " Listings" ). (T at 19).

After reviewing the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1567 (a) (T at 19-22). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform ...

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