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Pfalzer v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

October 18, 2013



WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. Plaintiff John Pfalzer challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").

2. On August 20, 2008, Pfalzer filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and IX of the Act, alleging an inability to work as of August 1, 1999. (R. 151-59.)[2] His applications were denied and, at Pfalzer's request, a video hearing was held before Administrative Law Jennifer Whang on October 7, 2010. Pfalzer appeared with an attorney and testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo and, on November 4, 2010, issued a decision denying the applications for benefits. Pfalzer filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which denied the request on May 18, 2012. He commenced this civil action on July 12, 2012, challenging the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner's") final decision.[3]

3. On January 28, 2013, Pfalzer and the Commissioner each filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The motions were fully briefed on March 21, 2013, at which time this Court took the matter under advisement without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Pfalzer's motion is denied.

4. 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 be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. 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 that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla"; 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).

5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of 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 reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. 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, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

7. The Second Circuit summarized this five-step process as follows:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry v. Schweiker , 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); see also Rosa v. Callahan , 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. The claimant bears the burden of proof as to the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner on the fifth and final step. See Bowen , 482 U.S. at 146 n. 5; Ferraris v. Heckler , 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this inquiry, in turn, is divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his 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. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

9. ALJ Whang made the following findings with regard to Pfalzer's claims: (1) Pfalzer had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 1999 (R. 47); (2) his degenerative joint disease of the hip and chronic nerve pain due to neuropathic pain syndrome/nerve injury status post inguinal repair are severe impairments within the meaning of the Act (Id.); (3) these impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. 49); (4) Pfalzer retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with additional specified limitations[4] (Id.); (5) he is unable to perform his past relevant work (R. 52); and (6) jobs exist in substantial number in the national economy that an individual of Pfalzer's age, education, past relevant experience, and RFC can perform (R. 53.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Pfalzer was not under a disability as defined by the Act. (R. 54.)

10. Pfalzer argues that reversal and remand are warranted because: (1) the ALJ erred in concluding that Pfalzer's depression was not a severe impairment, (2) her RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence, (3) her credibility assessment is not supported by substantial evidence, and (4) the Commissioner did not meet his burden of proof at step five of the sequential process.

11. "A severe' impairment is one that significantly limits an individual's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Tryon v. Astrue, No. 10-CV-537, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14486, at *5 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 7, 2012) (citations omitted). Pfalzer has the burden of establishing severity. "The mere presence of a disease or impairment, or establishing that a person has been diagnosed or treated for a disease or impairment' is not, itself, sufficient to deem a condition severe." McConnell v. Astrue, 03-CV-052, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24638, at *6 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2008) (citing Coleman v. Shalala , 895 F.Supp. 50, 53 (S.D.N.Y.1995)). Indeed, a "finding of not severe' should be made if the medical evidence establishes only a slight abnormality' which would ...

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