United States District Court, W.D. New York
LAURA B. HUNT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
JOHN T. CURTIN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Laura Hunt initiated this action pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB"). The Commissioner has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Item 11) and plaintiff has filed a cross motion requesting the same relief (Item 12). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted and plaintiff's cross motion is denied.
Plaintiff was born on March 20, 1953 (Tr. 127). She applied for DIB on April 16, 2009, alleging disability as of February 10, 2009 due to obesity, diabetes, hypothyroidism, status post hernia repair, cardiomyopathy, abdominal pain, hidradenitis, and adjustment disorder with depressed mood (Tr. 157). Plaintiff's application was denied on November 13, 2009 (Tr. 63-66). Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held on January 12, 2011 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robert T. Harvey (Tr. 29-55). Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel.
By decision dated March 9, 2011, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act (Tr. 14-21). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final determination when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-4).
Plaintiff then filed this action on September 19, 2012, pursuant to the judicial review provision of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On May 28, 2013, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the ground that the ALJ's determination must be upheld because it is supported by substantial evidence in the record ( see Item 11). Plaintiff crossmoved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the ALJ erred in not finding her disabled (Item 12). The Commissioner filed a response on July 1, 2013 (Item 15), and plaintiff filed a response on July 2, 2013 (Item 16).
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act states that upon district court review of the Commissioner's decision, "the 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, 773-72 (2d Cir. 1999). Under these standards, the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited, and the reviewing court may not try a case de novo or substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. 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 light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F.Supp. 1139, 1141 (E.D. Wis. 1976), quoted in Gartmann v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 633 F.Supp. 671, 680 (E.D.N.Y. 1986). The Commissioner's determination cannot be upheld when it is based on an erroneous view of the law that improperly disregards highly probative evidence. Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773.
II. Standard for Determining Eligibility for Disability Benefits
To be eligible for DIB and/or SSI under the Social Security Act, plaintiff must show that he or she suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment "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. § 423(d)(1)(A), and is "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy...." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Regulations set forth a five-step process to be followed when a disability claim comes before an ALJ for evaluation of the claimant's eligibility for benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is not, the ALJ must decide if the claimant has a "severe" impairment, which is an impairment or combination of impairments that "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment is severe, the ALJ then determines whether it meets or equals the criteria of an impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (the "Listings"). If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant will be found to be disabled. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth step requires the ALJ to determine if, notwithstanding the impairment, the claimant is capable of performing his or her past relevant work. Finally, if the claimant is not capable of performing his or her past relevant work, the fifth step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work which exists in the national economy, considering the claimant's age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. See Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 122 (2d Cir. 2000); Reyes v. Massanari, 2002 WL 856459, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. April 2, 2002); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).
The claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to the first four steps of the analysis. If the claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there exists other work that the claimant can perform. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999). The Commissioner ordinarily meets her burden at the fifth step by resorting to the medical vocational guidelines set forth at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 2 (the "Grids"). However, where the Grids fail to describe the full extent of a claimant's physical limitations, the ALJ must "introduce the testimony of a vocational expert (or other similar evidence) that jobs exist in the economy which claimant can obtain and perform." Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 603 (2d Cir. 1986).
In this case, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 27, 2009 (Tr. 16). Upon review of plaintiff's medical records and hearing testimony, the ALJ found plaintiff has severe impairments, including obesity, status post hernia repair, hypothyroidism, cardiomyopathy, abdominal pain, and hidradenitis, but that these impairments were not of sufficient severity to meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listings (Tr. 16-17). The ALJ also determined that plaintiff's diabetes, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and adjustment disorder were not severe impairments because they had only a minimal effect on plaintiff's ability to perform basic work functions. Id. ; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521. The ALJ then determined that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an ...