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Mestizo v. Astrue

United States District Court, Second Circuit

May 14, 2013

VERONICA MESTIZO, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION TO THE HONORABLE PAUL G. GARDEPHE

FRANK MAAS, Magistrate Judge.

Pro se plaintiff Veronica Mestizo ("Mestizo") brings this action pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to seek review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") finding her no longer eligible for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits that she received as a child. (ECF No. 2).[1] The Commissioner has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 20). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion should be denied and the case remanded.

I. Background

A. Procedural History

In 1996, Mestizo's mother, Guadalupe Mestizo ("Guadalupe"), filed an application for SSI benefits on behalf of Mestizo, who was seven years old at the time. (See R. 178-97).[2] On June 21, 2001, after several years of administrative review, Mestizo was awarded benefits as of October 31, 1996, based on a determination by an administrative law judge ("ALJ") that she was disabled due to hearing loss, asthma, congenital anomalies, and seizures. (Id. at 129-39). The congenital anomalies included "no left lung and atresia of the left auditory canal."[3] (Id. at 137).

In 2007, Mestizo turned eighteen, requiring the Commissioner to determine whether she continued to be eligible for SSI benefits under the adult disability standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(iii). On November 7, 2007, the Commissioner determined that Mestizo was not disabled under the adult standards, and that decision was affirmed upon reconsideration after a hearing before a state agency disability officer. (R. 15, 21-29, 102-08). Mestizo then requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Id. at 30-32). At that hearing, held before ALJ Jerome Hornblass on June 4, 2009, Mestizo and Guadalupe appeared and testified without counsel. (Id. at 644-60). Although the ALJ informed Mestizo of her right to legal representation, she elected to proceed pro se. (Id. at 617). On January 29, 2010, after reviewing the case de novo, ALJ Hornblass issued a decision finding that Mestizo was not disabled under the Act and thus was no longer eligible for SSI benefits. (Id. at 15-20). That ruling became the final decision of the Commissioner on May 26, 2011, after the Appeals Counsel denied Mestizo's request for review. (Id. at 7-9).

B. The ALJ's Decision

In reaching his conclusion that Mestizo was not disabled under the adult standard, the ALJ applied the usual five-part framework for determining whether a claimant is entitled to SSI benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. The ALJ omitted the first step of the sequential analysis, which is permitted under the rules for age-eighteen disability redeterminations. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.987(b).

At Step Two, the ALJ found that Mestizo had the following severe impairments: status post placement of a gastronomy tube, hearing loss, and history of asthma. (R. 17). Although he acknowledged that Mestizo had a history of mild to moderate asthma, which constituted a severe impairment, the ALJ found that she experienced asthma symptoms only once every six months to a year, and had not had an asthma attack or taken any asthma medication for two years. (Id.). From this, the ALJ concluded that Mestizo did not have a severe medically determinable impairment that was associated with her asthma. (Id.). The ALJ further considered whether Mestizo's androgen insensitivity syndrome was a severe impairment. (Id.). Although he acknowledged that the condition prevented her from having children, he concluded that it did not impose any functional limitations on her ability to perform work-related tasks. (Id.). Finally, the ALJ determined that Mestizo did not have any medically determinable psychological impairments that would qualify as a severe impairment. (Id. at 17-18).

At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that "[t]he medical record... fails to support a finding that [Mestizo] has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1." (Id. at 18).

At Step Four, the ALJ found that Mestizo retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a wide range of light work in environments that did not expose her to loud noises. (Id.). The ALJ based this determination on evidence that indicated that Mestizo did not need to use her gastronomy tube to eat, and that she was able to function without using the tube during the day. (Id. at 19). He noted Mestizo's testimony that she had some difficulties with strenuous activity, but found that those symptoms were not credible in light of medical evidence that indicated she was capable of lifting and carrying up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, standing and walking for up to six out of eight hours, and working for up to six out of eight hours. (Id.). At this step, the ALJ noted Mestizo's hearing loss in her left ear, but found that she could hear effectively during the administrative hearing and that her symptoms could be improved with hearing aids. (Id.). Thus, the ALJ determined that Mestizo's only documented limitation was that she would be unable to work in areas where she would be exposed to excessively loud noises. (Id.). Because Mestizo had no relevant past work, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth step of the sequential analysis. (Id.).

At Step Five, the ALJ determined that Mestizo was capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at 20). The ALJ reached this conclusion based upon Rule 202.16 of the Medical-Vocational Rules set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (often referred to as the "Grids"), which mandate a finding of non-disability if a claimant has the RFC to perform the full range of light work. (Id.). He noted that Mestizo could not work in environments where she would be exposed to excessively loud noises, but found that this limitation did not have an effect on his analysis. (Id.). The ALJ therefore concluded that Mestizo was not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

II. Legal Standards

A. Standard of ...


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