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Nicole E. Sierra v. Michael J. Astrue

September 28, 2012

NICOLE E. SIERRA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Randolph F. Treece United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER*fn1

In this action, Plaintiff Nicole Sierra moves, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Period of Disability (POD) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB).*fn2 Based upon the following discussion, the Commissioner's decision denying Social Security benefits is reversed and this case is remanded back to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for further development of the record.

I. BACKGROUND

Sierra, born on April 6, 1975, filed an application for POD and DIB on May 25, 2007, claiming an inability to work as of May 2, 2007, due to rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Dkt. No. 6, Admin. Transcript [hereinafter "Tr."] at pp. 27 & 81-87. Prior to that, Sierra had been employed as a file clerk and an administrative assistant. Id. at pp. 28, 112, & 174. The disability application was denied on initial review and on reconsideration. Id. at pp. 37, 38, 39-42, & 43-45. On September 15, 2009, a Hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas Grabeel (Tr. at pp. 23-36), who, on September 25, 2009, issued an unfavorable decision finding that Sierra was not disabled (Tr. at pp. 7-22). On January 13, 2011, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis under the Social Security Regulations to grant Plaintiff's request for review, thus rendering the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Id. at pp. 1-5. Exhausting all of her options for review through the Social Security Administration's tribunals, Plaintiff now brings this appeal.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the proper standard of review for this Court is not to employ a de novo review, but rather to discern whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and that the correct legal standards have been applied. See Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991); Urtz v. Callahan, 965 F. Supp. 324, 325-26 (N.D.N.Y. 1997) (citing, inter alia, Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987)). Succinctly defined, substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla," it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938).

The ALJ must set forth the crucial factors supporting the decision with sufficient specificity. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984). Where the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the court may not interject its interpretation of the administrative record. Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Where the weight of the evidence, however, does not meet the requirement for substantial evidence or a reasonable basis for doubt exists as to whether correct legal principles were applied, the ALJ's decision may not be affirmed. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d at 986.

B. Determination of Disability

To be considered disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must establish an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Furthermore, the claimant's physical or mental impairments must be of such severity as to prevent engagement in any kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. Id. at § 423(d)(2)(A).

In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step analysis set forth in the Social Security Administration Regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At Step One, the Commissioner "considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in gainful activity." Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he or she is not disabled and the inquiry ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Two and assesses whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id. at § 404.1520(c). If the claimant suffers from a severe impairment, the Commissioner considers at Step Three whether such impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1, in Part 404, Subpart P of the Regulations. Id. at § 404.1520(d). The Commissioner makes this assessment without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d at 467. Where the claimant has such an impairment the inquiry ceases as he or she is presumed to be disabled and unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Id. If the claimant's impairment(s) does not meet or equal the listed impairments, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Four and considers whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC)*fn3 to perform his or her past relevant work despite the existence of severe impairments.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past work, then at Step Five, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant can perform any other work available in the national economy. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d at 467; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

Initially, the burden of proof lies with the claimant to show that his or her impairment(s) prevents a return to previous lines of work (Steps One through Four). Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d at 467. If the claimant meets that burden, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at Step Five to establish, with specific reference to medical evidence, that the claimant's physical and/or mental impairment(s) are not of such severity as to prevent him or her from performing work that is available within the national economy. Id.; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also White v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 910 F.2d 64, 65 (2d Cir. 1990). In making this showing at Step Five, the claimant's RFC must be considered along with other vocational factors such as age, education, past work experience, and transferability of skills. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); see also New York v. Sullivan, 906 F.2d 910, 913 (2d Cir. 1990).

C. ALJ Grabeel's Findings

Sierra was the only witness to testify at the Hearing. Tr. at pp. 23-36. In addition to such testimony, the ALJ had Sierra's medical records consisting of treatment reports and opinions from various treating and/or examining physicians. Id. at pp. 129-321.

Using the five-step disability evaluation, ALJ Grabeel found that: 1) Sierra had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since May 2, 2007, the alleged onset disability date; 2) she has severe medically determinable impairments, namely rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia; 3) her severe impairments do not meet nor medically equal any impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P of Social Security Regulation No. 4; 4) she retains the RFC to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined by 20 ...


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