VALERIE L. HAMMOND, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
VICTOR E. BIANCHINI, Magistrate Judge.
In July of 2010, Plaintiff Valerie Hammond applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since May of 2010 due to physical and emotional impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's applications.
Plaintiff, by and through her attorney, Peter M. Margolius, Esq., commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).
On March 22, 2013, the Honorable Gary L. Sharpe, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket No. 14).
The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits and DIB on July 27, 2010, alleging disability beginning on May 6, 2010. (T at 106-109, 110-116). The applications were denied initially and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held on August 29, 2011, in Albany, New York before ALJ Dale Black-Pennington. (T at 30). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (T at 34-52). On September 23, 2011, ALJ Black-Pennington issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's applications. (T at 16-29). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on May 4, 2012, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-6).
Plaintiff, through counsel, timely commenced this action on June 14, 2012. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on October 1, 2012. (Docket No. 7). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on November 14, 2012. (Docket No. 10). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on February 21, 2013. (Docket No. 13).
Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Plaintiff's motion be denied, the Commissioner's motion be granted, and that this case be dismissed.
A. Legal Standard
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 the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen , 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir.1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); 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 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). 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).
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).
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. §§ 416.920, 404.1520. 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, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.
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 (2d Cir.1984).
The final step of the inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her 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. §§ 416.920(g); 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).
1. Commissioner's Decision
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (May 6, 2010) and met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. (T at 21). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine was a severe impairment. (T at 21). However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments found in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). (T at 22).
The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of sedentary work, as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567 (a) and 416.967 (a). (T at 22-24). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could ...