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Joanna Lynn Meidenbauer v. Michael J. Astrue

November 12, 2012


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


1. Plaintiff, Joanna Meidenbauer, challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Meidenbauer alleges that she has been disabled since September 2, 2004, and that her impairments render her unable to work. She therefore asserts that she is entitled to disability insurance benefits ("benefits") under the Act. Both Plaintiff and Defendant now bring motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings. For the following reasons, Defendant's is granted and Plaintiff's is denied.

2. Meidenbauer filed an application for benefits under Title II of the Act on January 30, 2009. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied her application, and as result, she requested an administrative hearing. She received that hearing before ALJ Marty Pillion on July 20, 2010. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on September 21, 2010, he issued a decision denying Meidenbauer's application for benefits. Meidenbauer, 28 years old at the time of the hearing, filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, but the Council denied that request, prompting her to challenge Defendant's decision by filing the current civil action on December 29, 2011.*fn1

3. On June 13, 2012, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Meidenbauer followed suit by filing her own motion three days later. Briefing on the motions concluded August 17, 2012, at which time 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. 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) Meidenbauer has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, September 2, 2004 (R. 25);*fn2 (2) Meidenbauer has several severe impairments, including, among others, spina bifida, the side-effects of several surgeries, and a hyper-contractile bladder (id.); (3) Meidenbauer 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. 26); (4) while Meidenbauer has no past relevant work, (5) with several modifications, she retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) (R. 26). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Meidenbauer was not under a disability as defined by the Act from her onset date through the date of the decision. (R. 33.)

10. Meidenbauer raises four challenges to the ALJ's decision: First, she argues that the ALJ failed to develop the record with regard to her mental impairments. Second, she contends that the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal standards in determining her RFC. Third, she argues that the ALJ also misapplied legal standards in assessing her credibility. And last, she contends that based on these errors, the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert was inaccurate. As a result, the expert's opinion -- that there are a significant number of jobs that she can perform -- is unreliable.

Each contention will be addressed in turn. 11. "Under 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(c) and 404.1521(a), an impairment or combination of impairments is not "severe" if it does not "significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Rosado, 805 F. Supp. at 154. Here, the ALJ found that Meidenbauer's generalized anxiety disorder and learning disorder did not cause "more than a minimal limitation in [her] ability to perform the basic mental work activities." (R. 25.) He therefore deemed her mental impairments "nonsevere." (Id.). In arguing that the ALJ erred, Meidenbauer concentrates exclusively on her anxiety. She ...

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