OFFICE OF MARK A. SCHNEIDER, MARK A. SCHNEIDER, ESQ., Plattsburgh, NY, Counsel for Plaintiff.
U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL - REGION II, BENIL ABRAHAM, ESQ., New York, NY, Counsel for Defendant.
DECISION and ORDER
GLENN T. SUDDABY, District Judge.
Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Robin Shutts ("Plaintiff") against the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "the Commissioner") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 10, 11.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is granted and Defendant's motion is denied.
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
A. Factual Background
Plaintiff was born on July 27, 1958. Plaintiff has completed education through high school and can communicate in English. He has previously worked as a janitor, truck driver and farm laborer. Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of chronic dorsal back pain due to degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, chronic sacroiliac joint dysfunction, diabetes mellitus and hypothyroidism. His alleged disability onset date is October 1, 2003, and his date last insured is June 30, 2009.
B. Procedural History
On June 29, 2009, Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff's application was initially denied, after which he timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ"). On November 10, 2010, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ, Arthur Patane. (T. 23-39.) The ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act on April 29, 2011. (T. 10-22.) On April 20, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-5.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.
C. The ALJ's Decision
Generally, in his decision, the ALJ made the following six findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 15-2.) First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (T. 15.) Second, the ALJ found that, during the relevant time period, Plaintiff's chronic dorsal back pain due to degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease and chronic sacroiliac joint dysfunction were severe impairments, but that Plaintiff's diabetes mellitus and hypothyroidism were not severe. (T. 15-16.) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments located in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix. 1. (T. 16.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) but that he should avoid working on scaffolding or ladders and avoid repetitive twisting. (T. 16-21.) Fifth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (T. 21.) Sixth, and finally, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (T. 21-22.)
II. THE PARTIES' BRIEFINGS ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION
A. Plaintiff's Arguments
Plaintiff makes five separate arguments in support of his motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule by giving little weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician but great weight to the opinions of two consultative examiners. (Dkt. No. 10 at 8-12 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work because (1) the ALJ failed to credit Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain, (2) the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff's obesity, (3) the ALJ failed to consider the effects of Plaintiff's diabetes and hypothyroidism on his ability to work, and (4) the ALJ failed to use a vocational expert to determine whether a person with a combination of Plaintiff's exertional and non-exertional impairments could perform any work. ( Id. at 12-18.) Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed legal error by failing to apply the proper legal standards in assessing Plaintiff's credibility. ( Id. at 18-20.) Fourth, Plaintiff argues that it was error for the Appeal's Council to fail to consider or analyze the new evidence it received from Plaintiff. ( Id. at 20-25.) Fifth, and finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff was not disabled because he was not treated by specialists. ( Id. at 25-26.)
B. Defendant's Arguments
In response, Defendant makes four arguments. First, Defendant argues that the Plaintiff's diabetes, hypothyroidism and obesity were not severe impairments. (Dkt. No. 11 at 11-12 [Def.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Defendant argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ properly considered (1) the opinions of Drs. Wassef and Welch and (2) Plaintiff's subjective complaints. ( Id. at 12-17.) Third, Defendant argues that the Appeals Council did not err in failing to consider new evidence that Plaintiff submitted from Drs. Lowell and Macelaru because the evidence consisted of reports that were authored after the relevant period. ( Id. at 17-18.) Fourth, and finally, Defendant argues that Dr. Lowell's opinion was not entitled to controlling weight. Id. at 18-20.)
III. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARD
A. Standard of Review
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); 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. See 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."); 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 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 (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).
"To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining 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).
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 ...