ELLEN M. OBRIST, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
LEGAL SERVICES OF CENTRAL NEW YORK, INC. CHRISTOPHER CADIN, ESQ., Syracuse, NY, Attorneys for Plaintiff,
SANDRA M. GROSSFELD, ESQ., OFFICE OF REGIONAL GENERAL COUNSEL SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION REGION II New York, NY, Attorneys for Defendant.
DAVID N. HURD, District Judge.
This matter is brought pursuant to §§ 205(g) & 1631(b)(3) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 1383(c)(3), to review a final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff's claim for Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income benefits. The parties have filed their briefs, including the Administrative Record on Appeal, and the matter has been submitted for decision without oral argument.
Plaintiff Ellen M. Obrist ("plaintiff" or "Obrist") filed an application for social security disability benefits on May 4, 2005, claiming a period of disability beginning on March 31, 1992. Her claims were initially denied on August 10, 2005. She requested a hearing on August 31, 2005, and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May 15, 2007. The ALJ rendered a decision on May 22, 2007, denying plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision and submitted, with permission, additional evidence to the Appeals Council. On December 13, 2007, the Appeals Council remanded the matter for a new hearing.
A new hearing was scheduled for June 2, 2009. At the request of the plaintiff, the hearing was adjourned. The hearing was held on September 15, 2009. The ALJ denied Obrist's claims on December 23, 2009. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision on February 11, 2010. On February 22, 2011, the Appeals Council denied review. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.
A. Standard of Review
The scope of a court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determinating whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied. Poupore v. Astrue , 566 F.3d 303, 305 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (citing Machadio v. Apfel , 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002)); Martone v. Apfel , 70 F.Supp.2d 145, 148 (N.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing Johnson v. Bowen , 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987)). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Poupore , 566 F.3d at 305 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB , 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217 (1938)). "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 v. Bowen , 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citing Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB , 340 U.S. 474, 488, 71 S.Ct. 456, 464 (1951)). If the Commissioner's disability determination is supported by substantial evidence, that determination is conclusive. Id.
However, "where there is a reasonable basis for doubting whether the Commissioner applied the appropriate legal standards, " the decision should not be affirmed even though the ultimate conclusion reached is arguably supported by substantial evidence. Martone , 70 F.Supp.2d at 148 (citing Johnson , 817 F.2d at 986).
A reviewing court may enter "a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Martone , 70 F.Supp.2d at 148. "Remand is appropriate where there are gaps in the record or further development of the evidence is needed, " such as where new, material evidence has become available. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Martone , 70 F.Supp.2d at 148 (citing Parker v. Harris , 626 F.2d 225, 235 (2d Cir. 1980)). A remand for rehearing directing the taking of additional evidence is warranted only if it is shown that there is new, material evidence "and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record'" at the administrative hearing. Carroll v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 705 F.2d 638, 643-44 (2d Cir. 1983) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), as amended in 1980)). Remand may also be appropriate if the Commissioner "misapplies the law or failed to provide a fair hearing." Id. at 644. However, where the underlying administrative decision is not supported by substantial evidence, reversal is appropriate because there would be no useful purpose in remanding the matter for further proceedings. Id . (reversing and remanding solely for calculation of benefits, subject to determination by the district court of any motion by the agency to remand to consider new evidence); Parker , 626 F.2d at 235 (reversing and remanding solely for calculation and payment of benefits); Simmons v. United States R.R. Ret. Bd. , 982 F.2d 49, 57 (2d Cir. 1992) (same); Williams , 859 F.2d at 261 (same).
B. Disability Determination-The Five Step Evaluation Process
The Social Security Act defines "disability" to include the "inability 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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In addition, the Act requires that a claimant's
physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his 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 he lives, or ...