PETER L. WALTON, ESQ., for Plaintiff.
VERNON NORWOOD, ESQ., Special Asst. U.S. Attorney for Defendant.
ANDREW T. BAXTER, Magistrate Judge.
This matter was referred to me for report and recommendation by the Honorable Lawrence E. Kahn, United States District Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 72.3(d). This case has proceeded in accordance with General Order 18.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On November 17, 2009, Angela Rose Ramsay ("plaintiff") protectively filed for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), alleging disability with an onset date of March 1, 2005. (Administrative Transcript ("T") 129). Plaintiff alleges disability stemming from: migraine headaches, neck pain from cervical spine degenerative disc disease, back pain from lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, hand pain from carpal tunnel syndrome, and foot pain from plantar fasciitis and heel spurs. (T. 134). Plaintiff was last insured on September 30, 2010. (T. 130). Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on March 3, 2010. (T. 66). Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing on April 21, 2010. (T. 74). Plaintiff appeared before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who denied plaintiff's claim in a decision dated June 14, 2011. (T. 94, 14-24). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on January 27, 2012. (T. 1-3).
II. APPLICABLE LAW
A. Disability Standard
To be considered disabled, a plaintiff seeking disability insurance benefits or SSI disability benefits must establish that she is "unable 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 twelve months..." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). In addition, the plaintiff's
physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which [she] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [her], or whether [she] would be hired if [she] applied for work.
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
The Commissioner uses a five-step process, set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 to evaluate disability insurance and SSI disability claims.
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If [she] is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to 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 meets or equals the criteria of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider [her] disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience.... Assuming the claimant does not have listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, [she] has the residual functional capacity to perform [her] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform [her] past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant can perform.
Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The plaintiff has the burden of establishing disability at the first four steps. However, if the plaintiff establishes her impairment prevents her from performing her past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to prove the final step. Id.
B. Scope of Review
In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987)). A reviewing court may not affirm an ALJ's decision if it reasonably doubts whether the proper legal standards were applied, even if the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. Johnson, 817 F.2d at 986. In addition, an ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984).
A court's factual review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to the determination of whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). "Substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Williams on behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). It must be "more than a scintilla" of evidence scattered throughout the administrative record. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 197 U.S. 229 (1938)); Williams, 859 F.2d at 258.
"To determine on appeal whether an 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, 859 F.2d at 258. However, a reviewing court may not substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner, if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. ( Id .; see also Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982)).
Plaintiff's counsel has reviewed the facts extensively in his memorandum of law. Defense counsel has incorporated plaintiff's summary of the case, with additional supporting facts. This court will adopt the facts as stated by both parties, with any exceptions noted in the following discussion.
IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION
The ALJ found that plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on September 30, 2010. (T. 14). Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of March 1, 2005, through her date last insured. (T. 16). The ALJ determined plaintiff suffered from two severe impairments: minimal to mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, and mild bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. ( Id. ). The ALJ found insufficient medical documentation existed within the medical records to establish that plaintiff's migraine headaches, asthma, plantar fasciitis, systemic lupus erythematosus ("SLE"), rheumatoid arthritis ("RA"), and multiple sclerosis qualified as severe impairments. (T. 17-18).
After consideration of the entire medical record, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "slightly less than the full range of light work." (T. 19). The ALJ found plaintiff was able to lift or carry twenty pounds occasionally, ten pounds frequently, and could walk or stand for six hours out of an eight hour work day. ( Id. ). However, plaintiff was limited in the "frequent use of her hands for fine manipulation such as fingering and feeling." ( Id. ).
Although the ALJ acknowledged that plaintiff's physical impairments caused her pain, she found plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and the limiting effects of those symptoms were not credible to the extent that they were inconsistent with an ability to do light work. The ALJ accorded great weight to the opinion of consultative examiner, Roberto Rivera, M.D., due to his programmatic expertise and overall consistency with other medical records. (T. 22). The ALJ accorded very little weight to the opinion of family practitioner, Charles Moehs, M.D., who performed a one-time independent medical examination. (T. 624-35). The ALJ found his medical statements were inconsistent with the totality of medical evidence found in the record and predicated on a possible diagnosis of SLE which was later ruled out. (T. 718, 724).
The ALJ found plaintiff was unable to return to her previous employment as a day care provider. (T. 22). The ALJ determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform slightly less than the full range of light work. Therefore, the ALJ used the Medical-Vocational Guideline § 202.21 which supported a finding of "not disabled, " and concluded that jobs which plaintiff could perform existed in significant numbers in the national economy. ( Id. ). However, the ALJ found plaintiff's additional claimed limitations had little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled light work, and that her manipulative limitations also did not significantly erode the unskilled light occupational base. ( Id. ).
V. PLAINTIFF'S CONTENTIONS
Plaintiff makes three arguments in support of reversal of the ...