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Tynesha M. Hartzog v. Michael Astrue

September 25, 2012

TYNESHA M. HARTZOG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Tynesha M. Hartzog ("Plaintiff"), brings this action pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12 (c) ("Rule 12 (c)"), on the grounds that evidence in the record supports a finding of disability. Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), denying Plaintiff's application for benefits, was erroneous because the ALJ did not give proper weight to Plaintiff's treating physician's opinion. Plaintiff also argues that her mental impairment meets the standards for per se disability under the Act, that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her credibility, and that the ALJ's decision relied upon flawed vocational testimony. Plaintiff seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision, and that the Court remand the case to the Social Security Administration for the calculation and payment of benefits.

The Commissioner moves for an order to reverse its decision and remand to the Social Security Administration for rehearing pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner concedes that the ALJ failed to adequately consider relevant expert testimony, but contends that the record does not compel the conclusion that Plaintiff is disabled.

The Court finds that the Commissioner's decision that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Additionally, because the Court finds that the record contains persuasive proof of Plaintiff's disability, the Commissioner's request for remand and rehearing pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is denied, and the Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted. The case will be reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for calculation and payment of benefits as of the Plaintiff's disability onset date, June 30, 2003.

BACKGROUND

The Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on November 16, 2004, alleging disability since June 30, 2003.*fn1 The application was initially denied on June 21, 2005. (Transcript of Administrative Proceedings at 133-36)(hereinafter "Tr."). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing on July 20, 2005. (Tr. at 137).

Plaintiff then appeared, with counsel, and testified at the hearing on May 20, 2008 in Rochester, N.Y. before ALJ Michael Friedman. (Tr. at 732-50). In a decision dated June 27, 2008, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (Tr. at 438-51). On July 25, 2008, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (Tr. at 463), and on November 7, 2008, the Appeals Council remanded the claim for a new hearing and decision. (Tr. at 474-76). In doing so, the Appeals Council ordered the ALJ to: update the evidentiary record with additional evidence of the Plaintiff's physical and mental impairments from her treating sources; obtain evidence from a psychiatric medical expert; give further consideration to the Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity; and obtain evidence from a vocational expert. (Tr. at 475).

A hearing was then held on June 11, 2009 before ALJ James E. Dombeck. (Tr. at 674-731). Vocational expert Peter Manzi also testified at the hearing. (Tr. at 675). A supplemental hearing was held on September 23, 2009 to obtain testimony from Dr. Ralph Sibley, a medical expert. (Tr. at 633-73). In a decision dated October 29, 2009, ALJ Dombeck found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 115-31). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on November 12, 2009 (Tr. at 113), and comments were submitted in support of her claim on September 16, 2010. (Tr. at 19-21). On January 11, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. at 13-17). Plaintiff then filed this action.

DISCUSSION

I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

42 U.S.C. § 405 (g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. When considering such claims, this section directs the Court to accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that these findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 217 (1938). Section 405 (g) limits the Court's scope of review to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the proper legal standards. See Monger v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1982) (finding that a reviewing Court does not try a benefits case de novo). The Court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Lynn v. Schweiker, 565 F. Supp. 265, 267 (S.D. Tex. 1983)(citation omitted).

The Plaintiff moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), asserting that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by the substantial evidence in the record, which supports a finding of disability. Additionally, the Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rendering his decision by failing to accord proper weight to Plaintiff's treating physician's opinions and failing to properly consider other relevant evidence. Rule 12(c) permits judgment on the pleadings where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2d Cir. 1988). If, after a review of the pleadings, the Court is convinced that Plaintiff has not set forth a plausible claim for relief, judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). In this case, this Court finds that there is substantial evidence in the record to find that the Plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act such that further review is unnecessary. Therefore, the Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted, and the Commissioner's motion is denied.

II. The Commissioner's decision to deny the Plaintiff Benefits is not supported by substantial evidence.

The ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. In his decision, the ALJ adhered to the five step sequential analysis for evaluating Social Security Disability benefits claims, which requires the ALJ to consider:

(1) whether the claimant is engaged in any substantial gainful work activity;

(2)if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits her ability to work;

(3)whether the claimant's impairment(s) meets or medically equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4; if so, claimant is considered disabled;

(4)if not, the ALJ determines whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past relevant work; if the claimant has the residual functional capacity ("RFC")to do her past work, she is not disabled;

(5)even if the claimant's impairment(s) prevent her from doing past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates her residual functional capacity and vocational factors, she is not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520 (a) (i)-(iv) and 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(iv).

In this case, the ALJ found that (1) the Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2003; (2) the Plaintiff has the severe combination of impairments: chronic back pain, shoulder pain, major depressive disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"); (3) the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4; (4) the Plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work as a hair stylist; and (5) the Plaintiff has the residual functional ...


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