United States District Court, N.D. New York
LUCY J. BARTRUM, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
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For Lucy J. Bartrum, Plaintiff: Howard D. Olinsky, LEAD ATTORNEY, Olinsky Law Group, Syracuse, NY.
For Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Katrina M. Lederer, LEAD ATTORNEY, Social Security Administration, Office of Regional General Counsel, Region II, New York, NY.
DECISION AND ORDER
Victor E. Bianchini, United States Magistrate Judge.
In June of 2009, Plaintiff Lucy J. Bartrum applied for supplemental security income (" SSI" ) benefits and disability insurance benefits (" DIB" ) under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since May of 2009 due to physical and mental impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's applications.
Plaintiff, by and through her attorneys, Olinsky and Shurtliff, Howard D. Olinsky, 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 October 22, 2012. (Docket No. 18).
The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows:
On June 24, 2009, Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits and DIB, alleging that she has been unable to work since May 18, 2009. (T at 194-205, 226). The applications were denied initially and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ). A hearing was held in Syracuse, New York, on December 16, 2010, before ALJ Barry Peffley, who presided via videoconference from Baltimore, Maryland. (T at 24, 26). Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. (T at 37-48). Testimony was also received from Dothel Edwards, a vocational expert. (T at 48-55).
On January 7, 2011, ALJ Peffley 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 claims for benefits. (T at 14-23). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on June 8, 2011, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-4).
Plaintiff, by and through her attorney, timely commenced this action by filing a Complaint on July 21, 2011. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on March 5, 2012. (Docket No. 9). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on April 19, 2012. (Docket No. 12). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on June 4, 2012. (Docket No. 14). With leave of the Court, Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief on June 18, 2012. (Docket No. 16). As noted above, the parties, through their respective attorneys, consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned on October 22, 2012. (Docket No. 18).
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.
For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is granted, the Commissioner's motion is denied, and this case is remanded for further proceedings.
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.
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).
1. Commissioner's Decision