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Wolfe v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

October 16, 2013

JOSEPH H. WOLFE, laintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


VICTOR E. BIANCHINI, Magistrate Judge.


In November of 2007, Plaintiff Joseph H. Wolfe applied for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since that time due to various physical and psychological impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's application.

Plaintiff, by and through his attorneys, Conboy McKay Bachman & Kendall, LLP, Lawrence Hasseler, Esq., of counsel, commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision 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. 16).


The procedural history may be summarized as follows:

On November 26, 2007, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, alleging that he had been unable to work since November 5, 2007. (T at 30, 98-101).[2] The application was denied initially and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held in Canton, New York, on April 28, 2010, before ALJ Thomas P. Tielens.[3] (T at 26). Plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. (T at 30-47).

On May 21, 2010, ALJ Tielens issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denying his claim for benefits. (T at 9-25). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on April 20, 2012, when the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-6).

Plaintiff, by and through counsel, timely commenced this action by filing a Complaint on June 18, 2012. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on October 15, 2012. (Docket No. 7). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on December 6, 2012. (Docket No. 11). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on February 21, 2013. (Docket No. 13).

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.[4]

There was a status conference held on May 23, 2013, with Magistrate Judge David Peebles, wherein the possibility of oral argument was discussed, with such argument to be scheduled if the Magistrate Judge felt it was necessary. Having reviewed the record throughly and having considered the arguments of counsel, this Court finds oral argument, at this point, unnecessary. For the reasons below, it is recommended that Plaintiff's motion be granted, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and 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).

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.[5]

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).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 5, 2007 (the alleged onset date) and met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. (T at 14). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments, as defined under the Social Security Regulations: degenerative disc disease lumber spine; degenerative disc disease cervical spine; history of right shoulder surgery; and depression. (T at 14-15). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or equal one of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the Regulations (the "Listings"). (T at 15-16).

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567 (b), except that he could only occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; had a mild, bilateral limitation with respect to hearing; and should avoid concentrated exposure to noise. The ALJ also ...

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