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Decker v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

November 19, 2013

LOUIS DECKER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

VICTOR E. BIANCHINI, Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

In January of 2009, Plaintiff Louis Decker applied for disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since October 2008 due to physical and psychological impairments. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Plaintiff's applications.

Plaintiff, by and through his attorneys, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Mary Martha Withington, 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 October 2, 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. 12).

II. BACKGROUND

The procedural history may be summarized as follows:

On January 30, 2009, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits under the Social Security Act, alleging that he had been unable to work since October 15, 2008. (T at 154-57, 158-61).[1] The applications were denied initially and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held in Albany, New York, on June 15, 2010, before ALJ Carl E. Stephan. (T at 75). Plaintiff appeared pro se. He requested and received an adjournment. (T at 79). A second hearing was held on August 31, 2010. Plaintiff appeared at the second hearing with an attorney and testified. (T at 84-97).

On November 22, 2010, ALJ Stephan issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denying his claims for benefits. (T at 9-26). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on May 4, 2012, when the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-5).

Plaintiff, by and through counsel, timely commenced this action by filing a Complaint on July 12, 2012. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on December 3, 2012. (Docket No. 7). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on January 16, 2013. (Docket No. 10). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on March 4, 2013. (Docket No. 11).

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.[2]

For the reasons below, it is recommended that Plaintiff's motion be denied, the Commissioner's motion be granted, and this case be dismissed.

II. DISCUSSION

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.[3]

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 October 15, 2008 (the alleged onset date) and met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2012 (the "date last insured"). (T at 63). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments, as defined under the Social Security Regulations: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. (T at 63-64). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the Regulations (the "Listings"). (T at 64-66).

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR §404.1567 (b) and § 416.967 (b), except that he was limited to simple work that does not involve constant interaction with others and should avoid environments with concentrated dust, odors, and other pulmonary/respiratory irritants. (T at 66-69).

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a warehouse laborer. (T at 69-70). However, considering Plaintiff's age (44 on the alleged onset date), education (limited), and RFC (light work with some restrictions), the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (T at 70-71).

Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as that term is defined under the Act, from the alleged onset date (October 15, 2008) through the date of the ALJ's decision (November 22, 2010, and was therefore not entitled to benefits. (T at 71). As noted above, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on May 4, 2012, when the ...


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