United States District Court, W.D. New York
SHAWNTA M. WHITESIDE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
JAYA ANN SHURTLIFF, ESQ., Law Offices of Kenneth Hiller, Amherst, New York, Attorneys for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney, Western District of New York (MARY K. ROACH, 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 12).
Plaintiff Shawnta M. Whiteside 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 Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits, as provided for in Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, 1381 et seq. 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 denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.
Plaintiff filed applications for SSDI and SSI benefits with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on October 7, 2008, alleging disability due to neck, back, and leg injuries suffered in a car accident on September 16, 2007 (Tr. 79-85; Tr. 92-94). These claims were administratively denied by the SSA on December 22, 2008 (Tr. 51-56). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was conducted on October 12, 2010, by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William M. Weir (Tr. 24-48). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified, without representation.
On January 24, 2011, ALJ Weir issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (Tr. 11-23). The ALJ determined that plaintiff "has status post motor vehicle accident with back, neck, and leg pain and objective evidence of cervical and lumbar disc disease, " but that she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that had significantly limited her ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months as required under the Social Security Act (Tr. 16). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on July 27, 2012, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-4).
Plaintiff filed this action on September 19, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's determination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Item 1). The Commissioner filed an answer, along with the administrative transcript (Item 6), and the parties moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) (Items 7 & 8).
For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioners 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 ...