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Petell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

February 28, 2014



HON. RICHARD S. HARTUNIAN VERNON NORWOOD, ESQ. United States Attorney for the Special Assistant United States Attorney Northern District of New York Attorney for Defendant New York.


CHRISTIAN F. HUMMEL, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Frederick Paul Petell, Jr. ("Petell") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3) seeking review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for benefits under the Social Security Act. Compl. (Dkt. No. 1). Petell moves for a finding of disability and the Commissioner cross-moves for a judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. Nos. 12, 15. For the following reasons, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

I. Background

A. Facts

Born May 18, 1971, Petell was thirty-seven years old when he applied for disability benefits. Tr. at 128.[2] Petell attended special education classes but was expelled from ninth grade. Tr. at 39-40, 138. Petell can read and write English. Tr. at 132. Petell was previously employed as a herdsman, linesman, and a construction worker. Tr. at 40, 200. Petell alleges disability from dyslexia, migraines stemming from a brain injury, and mental health issues. Tr. at 133.

B. Procedural History

Petell protectively filed an application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits on January 28, 2009 and social security disability insurance ("SSDI") benefits on February 1, 2009 pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. claiming an alleged onset date of September 1, 2008. Tr. at 16, 128. That application was denied on June 5, 2009. Tr. at 16, 62-68. Petell requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), Marie Greener, which was held on July 27, 2010. Tr. at 69-70, 34-60 (transcript of the administrative hearing). In a decision dated September 14, 2010, the ALJ found that Petell was not entitled to disability benefits. Tr. at 16-27. Petell's counsel filed a timely request for review with the Appeals Council and on August 24, 2012, the request was denied, thus making the ALJ's findings the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. at 1-9. This action followed.

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla, " meaning that in the record one can find "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

"In addition, an ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Barringer v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 358 F.Supp.2d 67, 72 (N.D.N.Y. 2005) (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984)). However, a court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006); Halloran, 362 F.3d at 31.

B. Determination of Disability[3]

"Every individual who is under a disability shall be entitled to a disability... benefit...." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1) (2004). Disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Id . § 423(d)(1)(A). A medically determinable impairment is an affliction that is so severe that it renders an individual unable to continue with his or her previous work or any other employment that may be available to him or her based upon age, education, and work experience. Id . § 423(d)(2)(A). Such an impairment must be supported by "medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." Id . § 423(d)(3). Additionally, the severity of the impairment is "based [upon] objective medical facts, diagnoses or medical opinions inferable from [the] facts, subjective complaints of pain or disability, and educational background, age, and work experience." Ventura v. Barnhart, No. 04-CV-9018(NRB), 2006 WL 399458, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2006)[4] (citing Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1037 (2d Cir. 1983)).

The Second Circuit employs a five-step analysis, based upon 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, to determine whether an individual is entitled to disability benefits:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he [or she] is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a severe impairment' which significantly limits his [or her] 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 [or her] 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 [or she] has the residual functional capacity to perform his [or her] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his [or her] past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry, 675 F.2d at 467. The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proof to establish each of the first four steps. DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1179-80 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467). If the inquiry progresses to the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that the plaintiff is still able to engage in gainful employment somewhere. Id. at 1180 (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467).

C. ALJ Greener's Findings

Petell, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing held on July 27, 2010. Tr. at 16-27. In addition, Petell's wife, Eva Petell, also testified. Id . Using the five-step disability sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Petell: (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2008, the alleged onset date; (2) had severe medically determinable impairments of gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD")[5] and intermittent explosive disorder ("IED");[6] (3) did not have an impairment, alone or in combination, sufficient to meet the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P of Social Security Regulation Part 404; (4) maintains "the residual functional capacity [("RFC")] to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c)[7] except no more than occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers, or the public"; (5) could not perform past relevant work; and (6) given his age, education, work experience, and RFC, was capable of engaging in employment which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. at 18-27. Therefore, a determination of not disabled was made.

D. Petell's Contentions

Petell first contends that the ALJ failed to assess the severity of his migraine headaches and lower back pain. Petell next contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment was erroneous because she improperly applied the treating physician's rule, failed to recontact a treating source, failed to afford weight to the opinions of Petell's social worker, and failed to support it with substantial evidence. Petell then asserts that the ALJ improperly evaluated Petell's credibility. Petell next contends that the ALJ failed to apply the psychiatric review technique ("PRT") required for evaluating mental impairments. Lastly, Petell claims that the ALJ failed to support the Step 5 conclusion with substantial evidence.

1. Severity

As mentioned above, step two of the sequential evaluation process requires a determination as to whether the claimant has a severe impairment which significantly limits the physical or mental ability to do basic work activities for a continuous period of time of not less than one year. See subsection II(B) supra. Thus, a diagnosis alone is insufficient to establish a severe impairment as instead, the plaintiff must show that the medically determinable impairments significantly limit the ability to engage in basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). The ability to do basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and activities necessary to do most jobs." Id . Basic work activities which are relevant for evaluating the severity of an impairment include:

(1) Physical functions such as walking, standing, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling;

(2) Capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking;

(3) Understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions;

(4) Use of judgment;

(5) Responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations; and

(6) Dealing with changes in a routine work setting.

Id.; see also Pickering v. Chater, 951 F.Supp. 418, 424 (S.D.N.Y.1996); see also Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-28, ...

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