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Kristin Walker v. Michael J. Astrue

September 25, 2012

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



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

DECISION AND ORDER

1. Plaintiff, Kristin Walker, challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Walker alleges that she has been disabled since September 5, 2007, and that her impairments render her unable to work. She therefore asserts that she is entitled to disability insurance benefits ("benefits") under the Act.

2. Walker filed an application for benefits under Title II of the Act on February 12, 2008. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied her application, and as result, she requested an administrative hearing. She received that hearing before ALJ Timothy M. McGuan on May 7, 2010. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on May 21, 2010, he issued a decision denying Walker's application for benefits. Walker filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, but the Council denied that request, prompting her to file the current civil action on September 12, 2011, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On May 18, 2012, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Walker followed suit by filing her own motion for judgment on the pleadings the following month. Briefing on the motions concluded July 16, 2012, at which time this Court took the motions under advisement without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Walker's motion is denied.

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. 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 that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla"; 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).

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. 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) Walker has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, September 5, 2007 (R. 12);*fn2 (2) Walker has several severe impairments, including mild L2-3 disease, fibromyalgia, obesity, and dependant personality disorder (R. 12); (3) Walker does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the criteria necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the regulations (R. 18); (4) Walker is unable to perform her past relevant work as a security guard or pharmacy technician (R. 24); (5) but, as long as she has the option to sit or stand, she retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b). (R. 20.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Walker was not under a disability as defined by the Act from her onset date through the date of the decision. (R. 25.)

10. Walker raises three challenges to the ALJ's decision: First, she argues that the ALJ erred by failing to expand the record; second, she argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider the negative effects of sleep apnea and obesity; finally, she contends that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her credibility. Each issue will be addressed in turn.

11. Walker, who was under regular mental health treatment since December of 2008, contends that the ALJ neglected his duty to develop the record by failing to request treatment notes from various mental health treatment sessions. Walker points out that at the disability hearing, ALJ McGuan asked if the record was complete. Her attorney responded by noting that Northwest Community Mental Health Services ("Northwest") -- the facility where Walker received treatment -- refused to release treatment notes. She therefore explained to the ALJ that a subpoena might be required if the judge found them necessary to resolve the case. (R 32-33.) ALJ McGuan did not subpoena the records. And Walker finds error in this omission.

12. There is no question that an ALJ has an obligation to develop the administrative record. Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 505 (2d Cir.1998) (citing Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 47 (2d Cir.1996)). But that duty only arises only where an ALJ lacks sufficient evidence to evaluate opinion evidence or make a disability determination. Ayers v. Astrue, No. 08--CV--69A, 2009 WL 4571840 (W.D.N.Y. Dec.7, 2009) (citing Rebull v. Massanari, 240 F. Supp. 2d 265, 272 (S.D.N.Y. 2002); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(e) ("When the evidence we receive from your treating physician or psychologist or other medical source is inadequate for us to determine whether you are disabled, we will need additional information to reach a determination or a decision"); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3) ("If the evidence is consistent but we do not have ...


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