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West v. Astrue

United States District Court, Second Circuit

September 10, 2013

MICHAEL WEST, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

William J. McDonald, Jr., Esq., Bond and McDonald, Geneva, NY, for Plaintiff.

Kathryn L. Smith, A.U.S.A. U.S. Attorney's Office, Rochester, NY, for the Commissioner.


CHARLES J. SIRAGUSA, District Judge.


Plaintiff Michael West ("West"), brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, [1] claiming that the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") improperly denied his application for disability and supplemental income security benefits for the period from March 1, 2008, to present. Specifically, West alleges that the decision of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence contained in the record, or was contrary to law.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings, contending that substantial evidence in the record supports the decision to deny benefits. Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, Jun. 28, 2012, ECF No. 5. West has separately moved for judgment on the pleadings. Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, Aug. 30, 2012, ECF No. 8. For the reasons described below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for a rehearing.


On March 4, 2010, West filed an application for Supplemental Security Income benefits, which was denied on May 12, 2010. His application was also considered an application for disability benefits under the Commissioner's Program Operations Manual System (POMS GN 00204.027(A)). West requested a hearing and his request was granted. He had a hearing before ALJ Mary Joan McNamara of Baltimore, Maryland, via teleconference from Rochester, New York, on June 15, 2011. The ALJ issued a decision dated August 12, 2011, denying his application.

On December 9, 2011, the Appeals Council denied West's appeal, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On January 9, 2012, West filed an action with this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) with this Court.


Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

Section 405(g) of Title 42, U.S. Code, grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Additionally, the section directs that when considering such a claim, the Court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the Court's scope of review to determining whether the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence. See, Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (holding that the reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo ). The Court is also authorized to review the legal standards employed by the Commissioner in evaluating a plaintiff's claim. The Court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Lynn v. Schweiker, 565 F.Supp. 265, 267 (S.D. Tex. 1983) (citation omitted).

Five-step sequential analysis

For purposes of the Social Security Act, disability is the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Schaal, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998).

The SSA has promulgated administrative regulations for determining when a claimant meets this definition. First, the SSA considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. If not, then the SSA considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" that significantly limits the "ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does suffer such an impairment, then the SSA determines whether this impairment is one of those listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant's impairment is one of those listed, the SSA will presume the claimant to be disabled. If the impairment is not so listed, then the SSA must determine whether the claimant possesses the "residual functional capacity" to perform his or her past relevant work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the SSA to prove that the claimant is capable of performing "any other work."

Schaal, 134 F.3d at 501 (citations omitted).


Treating Physician Rule

West contends that the ALJ did not adhere to the treating physician rule when she gave little or no weight to the conclusions of psychiatrist Xingjia Cui, M.D. Under the Commissioner's regulations, a treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight, provided that it is well-supported in the record:

If we find that a treating source's opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of your impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in your case record, we will give it controlling weight.

20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). However, "[w]hen other substantial evidence in the record conflicts with the treating physician's opinion... that opinion will not be deemed controlling. And the less consistent that opinion is with the record as a whole, the less weight it will be given." Snell v. Apfel, 17 ...

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