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Mancuso v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

July 1, 2013



WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. Plaintiff challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome since July 29, 2008. He contends that his medical condition renders him unable to work, and that he is therefore entitled to payment of Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on November 15, 2008 in which he alleged that he had been disabled since July 28, 2008. His application was denied on March 5, 2009. On December 10, 2010, Plaintiff and his attorney appeared before an ALJ for a video hearing. The ALJ considered the case de novo , and on December 22, 2010, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSI. On May 10, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on July 9, 2012, challenging Defendant's final decision.[2]

3. On March 8, 2013, Defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings on March 9, 2013. After full briefing, this Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is granted.

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 and Human Servs. , 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed 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, " Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971), and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id . 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 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 Rosa v. Callahan , 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. 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, 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 has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his disability (R. at 43);[3] (2) Plaintiff's Wericke-Korsakoff syndrome is a "severe impairment" within the meaning of the Act (R. at 43); (3) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the regulations (R. at 44); (4) Plaintiff retained the ability to lift fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently, to carry/push/pull up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, to sit and/or stand during the work day, and could maintain a schedule with the aid of an electronic or pocket calender, but was limited to walking about one-fourth of a mile at a time at a reasonable pace with a cane, and performing simple, routine, low-stress tasks with limited public contact, in an environment where he was not exposed to dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights (R. at 45); and (5) Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work (R. at 48). Further, the ALJ determined, based on testimony from a vocational expert, that a number of jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy which a person of Plaintiff's age, education, and residual function could perform (R. at 48). Based on the record, the ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Act at any time through the date of his decision, December 22, 2010 (R. at 49).

10. Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ did not appropriately address Plaintiff's "cognitive problems due to Wericke-Korsakoff syndrome" (R. at 46) and as such the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment, and mental RFC assessment in particular, was vague and not supported by substantial evidence. Yet, the ALJ's reliance on the assessment of Dr. Ryan, the State's consulting psychologist, when formulating Plaintiff's mental RFC was not, as Plaintiff suggests, inappropriate. It is well settled that an ALJ is entitled to rely upon the opinions of the state agency medical and psychological consultants, as they are qualified experts in the field of Social Security disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(b)(8), 404.1513(c), 416.912(b)(8), and 416.913(c). In his opinion, Dr. Ryan tested Plaintiff's ability to do simple calculations, serial threes, recall three objects after one and five minutes, and recite digits both forward and backward (R. at 248). After running these tests, Dr. Ryan observed that Plaintiff possessed the mental dexterity to do simple calculations, serial threes, recall three out of three objects after one and five minutes, and recite six digits forward and four digits backward (R. at 248). The psychologist concluded that Plaintiff's cognitive functioning was in the average ranged with "[g]eneral fund of information actually above average." (R. at 249.) As a result, Plaintiff was found to have "no significant limitation in ability to follow and understand simple directions, perform simple tasks, [or] maintain attention and concentration." (R. at 249.) In contrast, Plaintiff had only a "moderate limitation" in learning new tasks and performing complex tasks. (Id.) As Dr. Ryan was the only psychologist consulted in this case and was the only medical expert who made findings that were more than cursory with regards to Plaintiff's mental capacities, his opinion stands as the bulk of the record evidence which the ALJ could have relied upon when formulating Plaintiff's mental RFC.

Plaintiff further argues in a footnote that the ALJ erred in giving significant weight to Dr. Ryan's opinion, as it did not constitute substantial evidence. This assertion is based on Plaintiff's claim that Dr. Ryan's opinion (R. at 247-54) is vague, due to its use of the term "moderate limitations" (R. at 249) without providing any additional information. Plaintiff contends that an opinion utilizing such unsupported terms is untenable for evaluating a claimant's RFC, making the report non-substantial evidence. See Burgess v. Astrue , 537 F.3d 117, 128-29 ...

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