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Donaldson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

November 3, 2013



WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. Plaintiff, Tammy Donaldson, challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Donaldson alleges that she has been disabled since August 24, 2009.

2. Donaldson, alleging disability due to back pain resulting from a car accident and asthma, filed an application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits on January 22, 2010. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied her application, and as result, she requested an administrative hearing. She received that hearing before ALJ Bruce R. Mazzarella on August 30, 2011. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on September 15, 2011, issued a decision denying Donaldson's application. Donaldson filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, but the Council denied that request, prompting her to file the current civil action on June 6, 2012, challenging Defendant's final decision.[2]

3. On December 21, 2012, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Donaldson followed suit on December 26, 2012. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Donaldson'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 Social Security 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. This five-step process is detailed below:

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. The claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, but 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, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).

8. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings: (1) Donaldson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date (R. 21);[3] (2) Donaldson suffers from two severe impairments, namely chronic back pain and asthma (id.); (3) Donaldson does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the criteria necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the regulations (id.); (4) she retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to lift and carry up to 10 pounds, sit for an eight-hour work day with normal breaks, and stand and walk for up to two hours of an eight-hour workday, but she should avoid exposure to high concentrations of dusts, fumes, gases, and odors (R. 22); and last (5) Donaldson has past relevant work as a data entry clerk that she is able to perform (R. 25). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Donaldson was not under a disability as defined by the Act from her onset date through the date of the decision. (R. 25.)

9. Donaldson, 27 years old at the time of the hearing, raises four challenges to the ALJ's decision: First, she argues that the ALJ erred by not classifying her obesity as a severe impairment. Second, she contends that the ALJ erred by improperly evaluating treating source opinions. Third, she maintains that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility. And last, she maintains that the ALJ erred when he found that she could perform past relevant work. Each argument will be discussed in turn.

10. Donaldson is 5'5" tall and weighs 248 pounds. Donaldson argues that the Commissioner's failure to consider this fact at step two of his analysis "permeated the RFC, credibility [determination] and ultimately [the] step four conclusion that [she] could perform past relevant work." (Pl.'s Br. at 8; Docket No. 11-1.)

As an initial matter, Donaldson points to no evidence suggesting that her obesity should be considered a severe impairment. And this Court must be "[m]indful that a lack of evidence of severe impairment constitutes substantial evidence supporting a denial of benefits." Martin v. Astrue , 337 F.Appx. 87, 89 (2d Cir. 2009) (rejecting contention that obesity should have been considered a severe impairment because plaintiff's ...

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