United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY District Court.
1. Plaintiff Ebony Thomas challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").
2. Thomas filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act on January 26, 2010, and an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act on April 10, 2002. In each application, Thomas alleged she had been disabled from working since March 25, 2009 due to multiple sclerosis ("MS"). (R. 67-68, 138, 142.) The applications were denied on July 14, 2010. (R. 77-81.) Thomas then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ Bruce R. Mazzarella on October 26, 2011. (R. 29-53.) Thomas was represented by counsel at the hearing, at which she appeared in person and testified. (Id.)
3. ALJ Mazzarella considered the applications de novo and, on November 15, 2011, issued a written decision finding Thomas was not disabled from March 25, 2009 through the date of the decision. (R. 16-24.) Thomas filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which denied the request on December 6, 2012. She commenced this civil action on February 4, 2013, challenging the Commissioner's final decision.
4. On August 5, 2013 and September 6, 2013, respectively, Thomas and the Commissioner filed motions for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 6 and 9.) The motions were fully briefed on December 24, 2013, at which time this Court took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Thomas's motion is denied.
5. 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 be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. 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 that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla"; 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).
6. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen , 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan , 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
7. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. 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, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.
8. The five-step process is detailed below:
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his 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 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 has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.
Berry v. Schweiker , 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); see also Rosa v. Callahan , 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
9. Although 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, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this 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. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).
10. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process: (1) Thomas had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of March 25, 2009 (R. 18); (2) her multiple sclerosis was a severe impairment within the meaning of the Act (Id.); (3) this impairment did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. 19); (4) Thomas had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of sedentary work with occasional lifting and carrying of up to 10 pounds (Id.; (5) she has no past relevant work (R. 23); and (6) jobs existed in substantial number in the national economy that an individual of her age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform (Id.). adequately consider and weigh the opinion of consultative examiner, Dr. Kelley, (b) failing to adhere to the requirements of SSR 96-8p; and (c) drawing an adverse inference from her noncompliance with prescribed treatment without considering any explanations that might exist.
12. Thomas was seen by consultative examiner Kathleen Kelley, M.D. on June 29, 2010. Dr. Kelley's examination showed that Thomas had normal gait and station, her joints were stable with full range of motion, she had full strength in her upper and lower extremities, full grip strength, intact hand and finger dexterity, no muscle atrophy, and uncorrected vision of 20/25 in the right eye, 20/25 in the left eye, and 20/20 in both on a ...