DEBRA I. SIXBERRY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Comm'r of Soc. Sec., Defendant.
LAWRENCE D. HASSELER, ESQ., CONBOY, McKAY, BACMAN & KENDALL, LLP, Carthage, NY, Counsel for Plaintiff.
REBECCA H. ESTELLE, ESQ., U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN., OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL - REGION II, 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 Debra I. Sixberry ("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, 13.) 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 December 13, 1958. Plaintiff has completed a high school level of education and is able to communicate in English. She has most recently worked as a certified nurse assistant. Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of lumbar spine disorder post two surgical repairs, hypertension, history of frozen left shoulder disorder, history of left ankle ulceration, and depression. Her alleged disability onset date is December 30, 2004, and her date last insured is June 30, 2010.
B. Procedural History
On July 29, 2008, Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance. Plaintiff's application was initially granted in part and denied in part, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ"). On July 14, 2010, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ, Robert E. Gale. (T. 34-58.) On December 23, 2010, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff disabled under the Social Security Act for a closed period from July 2006 through December 31, 2008 (T. 12-25.) On July 19, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-6.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.
C. The ALJ's Decision
Generally, in his decision, the ALJ made the following ten findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 15-24.) First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (T. 16.) Second, the ALJ found that, at all relevant times, Plaintiff's lumbar spine disorder was a severe impairment. (T. 16.) Third, the ALJ found that from December 30, 2004 through December 31, 2008, Plaintiff's severe impairment did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments located in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix. 1. ( Id. ) Fourth, the ALJ found that, from December 30, 2004 through December 31, 2008, Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) was significantly diminished by exertional limitations. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "could occasionally lift, carry, push or pull 10 pounds; could frequently lift, carry, push or pull less than 10 pounds; and could sit, stand or walk, in combination, substantially less than a full workday on a sustained basis secondary to frequent exacerbations of back pain and other symptoms." (T. 16-17.) Fifth, the ALJ found that, from December 30, 2004 through December 31, 2008, Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (T. 17.) Sixth, the ALJ found that, from December 30, 2004 through December 31, 2008, there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. (T. 17-18.)
Seventh, the ALJ found that medical improvement occurred as of January 1, 2009, which is the date Plaintiff's disability ended. (T. 18-20.) Specifically, the ALJ found that "[t]he objective medical evidence and [Plaintiff's] course of medical treatment establish that the severity of her lumbar spine disorder significantly decreased in terms of signs, symptoms and laboratory findings by January 1, 2009, such that [Plaintiff] was capable of returning to significant work activity as of that date." (T. 18.) Eighth, the ALJ found that, beginning on January 1, 2009, Plaintiff has not had an impairment or group of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix. 1. (T. 20.) The ALJ considered listing 1.04. ( Id. ) Ninth, the ALJ found that, beginning on January 1, 2009, Plaintiff has had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the exertional demands of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and has additional nonexertional limitations. (T. 20-23.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "can occasionally lift, carry, push or pull 20 pounds; can frequently lift, carry, push or pull 10 pounds; can stand or walk, in combination, for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks; can sit for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks; and can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl or climb." ( Id. ) Tenth, and finally, the ALJ determined that, beginning on January 1, 2009, Plaintiff "has been able to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy." (T. 24.)
II. THE PARTIES' BRIEFINGS ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION
A. Plaintiff's Arguments
Plaintiff makes four separate arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to lend proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Dhawan. (Dkt. No. 10 at 5-8 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly calculate her RFC for the following reasons: (1) the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was able to perform the full range of light work on January 1, 2009 when she was totally disabled the day before is untenable; (2) the ALJ failed to acknowledge the medical evidence of her limitations after January 1, 2009; and (3) the ALJ was required to accept the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Dhawan. ( Id. at 8-10.) Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly assess her subjective allegations of pain and disabling symptoms. ( Id. at 10-12.) Fourth, and finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination at step five of the sequential analysis is unsupported by substantial evidence for the following reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly relied on the Grids when Plaintiff's RFC does not match the criteria of a medicalvocation rule exactly; (2) the ALJ was required to obtain expert vocational testimony due to Plaintiff's significant nonexertional impairments; and (3) even if Plaintiff could perform the full range of sedentary work, the Grids require a finding of "disabled." ( Id. at 12-13.)
B. Defendant's Arguments
In response, Defendant makes two arguments. First, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff could perform light work beginning on January 1, 2009. (Dkt. No. 13 at 5-11 [Def.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly found that work existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform beginning ...