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Dunning v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 13, 2013

JANE DUNNING, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. Plaintiff Jane Dunning challenges the determination of Defendant[1] that she was not disabled under section 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on June 5, 2009, alleging that she became disabled beginning January 1, 2008. Plaintiff seeks review of Defendant's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

2. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on September 15, 2009. Upon her request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on January 10, 2011, at which Plaintiff testified. After consideration of the evidence, including Plaintiff's medical records, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for disability benefits in a decision dated February 4, 2011. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 2, 2012, after receipt of additional evidence. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on June 7, 2012.

3. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on January 25, 2013. Defendant also moved for such judgment in her favor on the same date. This Court finds the matter fully briefed and oral argument unnecessary. Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where material facts are undisputed and where a judgment on the merits is possible based on consideration of the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc. , 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988).

4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo 3whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. § § 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health and 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, 44 (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, " 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).

5. "To determine on appeal whether the [Commisioner'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 findings 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, 153c (S.D.N.Y. 1992); see Rutherford v. Schweiker , 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982), cert denied , 459 U.S. 1212 (1983). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and will 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 and 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) (quotations in original); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Rosa v. Callahan , 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999).

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) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2008, the alleged onset date of disability (R. 14);[2] (2) Plaintiff had a severe impairment of a back disorder, and several non-severe impairments, including high blood pressure and depression (R. 14-15); (3) neither these impairments nor any combination of these impairments met or medically equaled a recognized disabling impairment under the regulations (R. 15); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of light work (R. 15-20); and (5) Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a customer service representative. (R. 20.)

10. Plaintiff, relying on Snell v. Apfel , 177 F.3d 128 (2d Cir. 1999), first contends that the Appeals Council erred in failing to state good reasons for not affording controlling weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, whose reports were submitted after the ALJ rendered her decision in this matter. (Pl's Mem of Law at 10-11, Docket No. 7; R. 4.) Initially, although the Appeals Council made this additional evidence part of the record, it denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4); see Snell , 177 F.3d at 132 (reviewing Appeals Council decision after it sua sponte reconsidered and reversed the ALJ determination in the claimant's favor based on its own findings). "SSA regulations provide that, if the Appeals Council grants review of a claim, then the decision that the Council issues is the Commissioner's final decision. But if, as here, the Council denies the request for review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision." Sims v. Apfel , 530 U.S. 103, 106-7, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 147 L.Ed.2d 80 (2000); Perez v. Chater , 77 F.3d 41, 44 (2d Cir. 1996). In the instant case, it is the ALJ's determination that is the final decision of the Commissioner and therefore reviewable pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); DiBlasi v. Comm'r of Social Security , 660 F.Supp.2d 401, 406 (N.D.N.Y. 2009). The new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council nonetheless becomes part of the administrative record to be considered by this Court in determining whether the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence. Perez , 77 F.3d at 46; Sobolewski v. Apfel , 985 F.Supp. 300, 311 (E.D.N.Y. 1997).

Plaintiff argues that this new evidence, specifically her medical records from treating psychiatrist Dr. Syed S. Jaffri, precludes reliance on a state agency medical expert's opinion that Plaintiff could perform light work. (Pl's Mem of Law at 11; R. 20, 245.) The ALJ gave great weight to the expert's opinion in part because there was "no medical report which is inconsistent." (R. 20, 210-211, 245.) Plaintiff argues that the new records from the treating psychiatrist are inconsistent and therefore undermine this conclusion. (Pl's Mem of Law at 11; R. 20, 245, 294-301.) This Court disagrees. Although Dr. Jaffri summarily states in his January 2011 report that ...

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