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Cosnyka v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

July 3, 2013

STEVEN R. COSNYKA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1] Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. Plaintiff, Steven Cosnyka, challenges the determination of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") that he is not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on September 1, 2008, and he contends that his injuries have rendered him unable to work since that date. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to payment of supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on December 4, 2008. His application was denied. At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Joseph Grow on July 8, 2010. Plaintiff appeared through video with a non-attorney representative at the hearing. ALJ Grow considered the case de novo, and on July 30, 2010, found that Plaintiff was not under a disability. On May 16, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on July 13, 2012, challenging Defendant's final decision.[2]

3. On February 10 and March 13, 2013, the Government and Plaintiff filed Cross-Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After full briefing, this Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement.

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 & 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 evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla, " and is 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). 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 may 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 & 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 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, 140-42, 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); 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 application date of December 4, 2008 (R. at 75);[3] (2) Plaintiff has the following "severe" impairments according to the regulations: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, myospasms, and degenerative joint disease of the left knee (R. at 75); (3) Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation Number 4 (R. at 75); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, except that Plaintiff is also limited to occasionally climbing ramps or stairs, occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; further, Plaintiff would be off task approximately 10% of the workday (R. at 75); and (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work (R. at 78). Considering Plaintiff's age, high school education, and his residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined, based on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and the testimony of a vocational expert, that there are a number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. at 78). Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from the alleged onset date of disability through the date of his decision, July 30, 2010. (R. at 79).

10. Based on his examination of the record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff would be able to perform sedentary work but would be off-task approximately 10% of the workday, or six minutes per hour. For the purposes of social security claims, the Code of Federal Regulations defines sedentary work as "lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools. Although a sedentary job is defined as one which involves sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties. Jobs are sedentary if walking and standing are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are met." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a).

11. Plaintiff's first challenge to the ALJ's decision is that he interjected his lay medical opinion and failed to consider the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Michael Calabrese. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly apply the "treating physician rule" because he failed to give ...


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