United States District Court, N.D. New York
For Toni Ann Wojciechowski, Plaintiff: Jan S. Kublick, LEAD ATTORNEY, McMahon, Kublick Law Firm, Syracuse, NY.
For Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, in place of Michael Astrue, Defendant: Amanda J. Lockshin, LEAD ATTORNEY, Social Security Administration, Office of Regional General Counsel, Region II, New York, NY.
Victor E. Bianchini, United States Magistrate Judge.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
In April of 2009, Plaintiff Tori Ann Wojciechowski applied for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since January of 2009 due to physical and psychological impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's application.
Plaintiff, by and through her attorneys, McMahon Kublik & Smith, P.C., Jan S. Kublick, Esq., of counsel, 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 June 26, 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. 15).
The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff applied for benefits on April 15, 2009, alleging disability beginning on January 13, 2009. (T at 44,112-13). The application was denied initially and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ). A hearing was held on July 15, 2010, in Syracuse, New York before ALJ Barry Peffley. (T at 10). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (T at 16-26). Testimony was also received from Jay Steinbrenner, a vocational expert. (T at 26).
On September 22, 2010, ALJ Peffley issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application. (T at 45-62). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on January 19, 2012, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-6).
Plaintiff, through counsel, timely commenced this action on February 21, 2012. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on May 11, 2012. (Docket No. 5). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on May 21, 2012. (Docket No. 9). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on September 19, 2012. (Docket No. 14).
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 granted, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and that this case be remanded for further proceedings.
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 (January 13, 2009) and met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. (T at 50). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's bi-polar disorder, chronic back pain, and carpal tunnel met the definition of severe impairments, as defined under the Act. (T at 50). 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 50-52).
The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (" RFC" ) to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567 (a) and 416.967 (a), with some limitations. (T at 52-56). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a baker. (T at 56).
Considering Plaintiff's age (35 years old on the alleged onset date), education (high school), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (T at 56-57). As such, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined under the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date (January 13, 2009) to the date of his decision (September 22, 2010). (T at 57-58).
As noted above, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on January 19, 2012, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-6).
2. Plaintiff's Claims
Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed. She offers four (4) principal arguments
in support of this position. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly apply the treating physician's rule. Second, she argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Third, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's credibility assessment. Fourth, Plaintiff argues that her impairment meets or medically equals the ...