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Warren v. Colvin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

January 15, 2014

LISA M. WARREN, on behalf of T.M.W., an infant, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

MYERS, QUINN & SCHWARTZ, LLP, (LEWIS L. SCHWARTZ, ESQ., of Counsel) Buffalo, New York, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney, Western District of New York (MICHAEL S. CERRONE, AUSA, of Counsel) United States Attorney's Office, Buffalo, New York Attorneys for Defendant.

JOHN T. CURTIN, District Judge.

This matter has been transferred to the undersigned for all further proceedings, by order of Chief United States District Judge William M. Skretny dated November 14, 2013. Item 20.

Plaintiff Lisa M. Warren initiated this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits made on behalf of her minor child, T.M.W. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is granted, and the Commissioner's motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed an application on January 31, 2008, for SSI benefits on behalf of T.M.W. (Tr. 157-60).[2] T.M.W. was born on October 7, 2000, and was 7 years old at the time the application was filed (Tr. 157). Plaintiff alleged that T.M.W. was disabled due to asthma, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), possible schizophrenia, and child psychosis, with an onset date of September 1, 2005 (Tr. 175). Upon denial of the application at the initial level of agency review (Tr. 84-87), plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 88-89). The hearing was held by video conference on September 27, 2010, before ALJ David S. Pang (Tr. 28-62). Plaintiff and T.M.W. testified at the hearing, and they were represented by attorney Lewis L. Schwartz, Esq., who is also serving as plaintiff's counsel in this action.

In a decision dated November 18, 2010, ALJ Pang found that T.M.W. was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (Tr. 67-79). Following the sequential evaluation process for determining disability for children, as outlined in the Social Security regulations at 20 C.F.R. § 416.924, the ALJ determined that T.M.W.'s impairments, while severe, did not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal the severity of any impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"), necessary for a finding of eligibility for child's SSI benefits ( id. ).

Plaintiff filed a timely administrative appeal (Tr. 17-18), and on April 13, 2012, the ALJ's decision became the final determination of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff then filed this action on June 11, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the parties now move for judgment on the pleadings under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) (Items 10, 12).

In support of her motion, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of a consulting psychologist; failed to consider evidence regarding the severity of T.M.W.'s bipolar disorder and its effect on her functioning in the six functional equivalence domains outlined at 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1); and failed to properly assess the credibility of plaintiff's and T.M.W.'s hearing testimony. See Item 13. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence, and should be affirmed. See Item 11.

DISCUSSION

I. Scope of Judicial Review

The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioner's decision, "[t]he findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is defined as evidence which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938), quoted in Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999). The substantial evidence test applies not only to findings on basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from the facts. Giannasca v. Astrue, 2011 WL 4445141, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2011) (citing Rodriguez v. Califano, 431 F.Supp. 421, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1977)).

Under these standards, the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited, and the reviewing court may not try the case de novo or substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Servs., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012). The court's inquiry is "whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached" by the Commissioner. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982), quoted in Winkelsas v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575513, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. February 14, 2000).

However, "[b]efore the insulation of the substantial evidence test comes into play, it must first be determined that the facts of a particular case have been evaluated in the light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F.Supp. 1139, 1411 (E.D.Wis. 1976), quoted in Sharbaugh v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575632, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. March 20, 2000); Nunez v. Astrue, 2013 WL 3753421, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 17, 2013) (citing Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773). "Failure to apply the correct legal standard constitutes reversible error, including, in certain circumstances, failure to adhere to the applicable regulations." Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). Thus, the Commissioner's determination cannot be upheld when it is based on an erroneous view of the law, or misapplication of the regulations, that disregards highly probative evidence. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 44 (2d Cir. 1983); see also Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal."), quoted in McKinzie v. Astrue, 2010 WL 276740, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2010).

If the Commissioner's findings are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence, the court must uphold the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive, and where a claim has been denied... the court shall review only the question of conformity with [the] regulations...."); see Kohler, 546 F.3d at 265. "Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [the court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). Even where there is substantial evidence in the record weighing against the Commissioner's findings, the determination will not be disturbed so long as substantial evidence also supports it. See Marquez v. Colvin, 2013 WL 5568718, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 9, 2013) (citing DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998) (upholding the Commissioner's decision where there was substantial evidence for both sides)).

In addition, it is the function of the Commissioner, not the reviewing court, "to resolve evidentiary conflicts and to appraise the credibility of witnesses, including claimant." Carroll v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983); cf. Cichocki v. Astrue, ___ F.Appx. ___, 2013 WL 4750284, at *3 (2d Cir. Sept. 5, 2013). "Genuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, " Veino, 312 F.3d at 588, and the court "must show special deference" to credibility determinations made by the ALJ, "who had the opportunity to observe the witnesses' demeanor" while testifying. Yellow Freight Sys. Inc. v. Reich, 38 F.3d 76, 81 (2d Cir.1994).

II. Standards for Determining Eligibility for Child's Disability Benefits

Under the Social Security Act, an individual under the age of 18 is entitled to SSI benefits when he or she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which results in marked and severe functional limitations and which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The regulations set forth a sequential process for the ALJ to follow in evaluating SSI claims for minor children. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. First, the ALJ must determine whether the child has engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the child is ineligible for SSI benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). If the child has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires an evaluation of whether the child suffers from an impairment or combination of impairments that cause more than a minimal functional limitation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If the child's ...


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