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Anderson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

October 9, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


EARL S. HINES, Magistrate Judge.

Debra L. Anderson ("Anderson") seeks review of a partially-adverse decision on her applications for disability-based benefits under the Social Security Act.

I. Judicial Review

A reviewing court's limited role under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether (a) the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and (b) the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Lamay v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507 (2d Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 559 U.S. 962 (2010); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Even in this narrows context, Congress directs courts, when reviewing acts of administrative agencies, to take "due account" of "the rule of prejudicial error." 5 U.S.C. § 706; see also 28 U.S.C. § 2111 (directing that judgments given upon examination of records be "without regard to errors or defects which do not affect the substantial rights of the parties"); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 61 (stating that "the court must disregard all errors and defects that do not affect any party's substantial rights").

II. Background

Anderson seeks social security disability insurance benefits commencing April 30, 2009, due to a back injury, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). (T. 225).[1] Administrative law judge, Susan Wakshul, ("ALJ Wakshul") found that Anderson became disabled as of August 5, 2010, (when her age category changed from a younger individual age 45-49 to an individual closely approaching advanced age), and such disability has continued through the date of her decision-January 13, 2011. Therefore, she granted Anderson's applications in part.

ALJ Wakshul denied Anderson's applications for the time commencing April 30, 2009, (alleged date of onset of disability) until August 5, 2010, a period of approximately fifteen months. The Appeals Council declined review of that portion of her decision; Anderson then instituted this proceeding.

III. Commissioner's Decision

ALJ Wakshul found that, at all material times, Anderson has degenerative disc disease, left knee injury, early chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dyslipidemia, obesity, major depressive disorder, and PTSD. Separately and collectively, these conditions constitute "severe" impairments in that they produce more than minimal functional limitations. (T. 26).

ALJ Wakshul found that Anderson's impairments, singly or in combination, are not so extreme in degree as to be presumptively disabling under the Commissioner's listing of presumptively disabling impairments.[2] Nonetheless, they significantly reduce Anderson's capacity to perform work-related activities. With respect to physical capacity for such activities, Anderson retains ability to function only at the sedentary exertional level with multiple limitations:

[S]he is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds at all or to climb ramps or stairs more than occasionally. The claimant retains the ability to balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl occasionally.

(T. 30). And, with respect to mental capacity, ALJ Wakshul concluded:

In spite of her mental impairments, she is able to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks and to tolerate occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public in a non-production-pace, "low stress" work environment, i.e., the work would not require the claimant to make decisions or to use her judgment more than occasionally, or to be exposed to more than occasional changes in the work setting.

( Id. ).

Relying on expert vocational testimony, ALJ Wakshul found that (a) Anderson's reduced residual functional capacity prevents her from performing her past relevant work as a cashier, home health aide, or food sales clerk (T. 33), but (b) prior to August 5, 2010, Anderson could still perform alternative, available work as an "inspector, " "polisher, " or "laminator." (T. 33-34). Therefore, ALJ Wakshul determined that a finding of "not disabled" was appropriate under the framework of Medical-Vocational Rule 201.21.[3] (T. 34). Thus, Anderson's claim prior to August 5, 2010, was denied. (T. 34-35).

When Anderson's age category changed to an "individual closely approaching advanced age" on August 5, 2010, ALJ Wakshul determined that a finding of "disabled" is reached by direct application of Medical-Vocational Rule 201.14. (T. 34). Therefore, her applications partially were granted commencing as of that date.[4]

IV. Points of Alleged Error

Disagreeing with that portion of ALJ Wakshul's decision adverse to her applications, Anderson's brief proffers four errors:

1. the ALJ failed to find that Plaintiff met Listing 12.04;
2. the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding is unsupported by substantial evidence;
3. the ALJ's credibility determination is unsupported by substantial evidence; and
4. the ALJ's Step 5 determination is unsupported by substantial evidence.

(Dkt. No. 12, pp. 3, 9-24). Under this district's practice, the parties marshal their arguments on these issues through competing briefs.[5]

V. Introductory Considerations

A. Sequential Evaluation

Administrative law judges utilize a five-step sequential evaluation procedure prescribed by regulation and approved by courts as a fair and just way to determine disability applications in conformity with the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153 (1987) (citing Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 461 (1983)).[6] Whether claimants are presently engaged in substantial gainful activity is examined at Step 1. Administrative law judges determine whether claimants have severe impairments at Step 2. Severe impairments are compared to an official Listing of presumptively disabling impairments at Step 3. When sequential evaluations reach Step 4, adjudicators determine whether claimants can perform their past relevant work. Finally, when adjudicators proceed to Step 5, the inquiry centers on whether claimants can still perform alternative and available work.

B. Residual Functional Capacity

Both Step 4 and Step 5 findings are made in context of a predicate residual functional capacity finding. "Residual functional capacity" refers to what persons can still do in work settings despite physical and/or mental limitations caused by their impairments and related symptoms, such as pain. See Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999). Administrative law judges thus decide whether applicants, notwithstanding their impairments, have physical and mental abilities to perform activities generally required by competitive, remunerative work on a regular and continuing basis. Descriptions and observations of limitations from all sources, including claimants and lay persons are admissible and relevant on this issue.[7]

C. Determining Credibility of Medical Evidence

The Commissioner categorizes medical evidence by "sources" described as "treating, " "acceptable" and "other." Administrative law judges are required to give controlling weight to opinions of treating sources[8] regarding the nature and severity of impairments, provided they are well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and are not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.[9]

"Acceptable" medical sources are licensed physicians (medical or osteopathic doctors), psychologists, optometrists, podiatrists, and speech-language pathologists.[10] An acceptable medical source opinion or diagnosis is necessary to ...

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