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Morris v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

April 14, 2014


HOWARD D. OLINSKY, ESQ., OLINSKY LAW GROUP, Syracuse, New York. Attorneys for Plaintiff.

VERNON NORWOOD, ESQ., SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Office of the General Counsel New York, New York. Attorney for Defendant.


MAE A. D'AGOSTINO, District Judge.


Plaintiff Danielle L. Morris brings the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking a review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Presently before the Court are Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings, Dkt. No. 13, and Defendant's opposition and cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings, Dkt. No. 14.


On October 27, 2009, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of June 5, 2009. Dkt. No. 9, Administrative Transcript ("T."), at 11, 98-102. On February 5, 2010, Plaintiff's applications were denied, T. 53-54, and on December 2, 2010, Plaintiff and her counsel appeared at a requested hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robert E. Gale, T. 22-52. ALJ Gale issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims for benefits on May 20, 2011. T. 8-21. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, T. 6-7, which review was denied on October 9, 2012, T. 1-4, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

Plaintiff was 37 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision, with an eighth grade education and past work experience as a kennel technician and fire restoration worker/supervisor. T. 16. Plaintiff alleges disability as a result of hyperthyroidism with Grave's Disease and headaches. T. 13-14, 59-60. The record evidence in this case is undisputed and the Court adopts the parties' factual recitations. See Dkt. No. 13 at 4-14; Dkt. No. 14 at 4-8 ("The Commissioner incorporates plaintiff's statement of facts..., with the exception of any inferences, arguments, or conclusions contained therein....").


A. Legal Standards

For purposes of both DIB and SSI, a person is disabled when he is unable "to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). There is a five-step analysis for evaluating disability claims:

"In essence, if the Commissioner determines (1) that the claimant is not working, (2) that he has a severe impairment, ' (3) that the impairment is not one [listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations] that conclusively requires a determination of disability, and (4) that the claimant is not capable of continuing in his prior type of work, the Commissioner must find him disabled if (5) there is not another type of work the claimant can do." The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, while the Social Security Administration bears the burden on the last step.

Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Draegert v. Barnhart, 311 F.3d 468, 472 (2d Cir. 2002)).

In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405, the Court does not determine de novo whether a plaintiff 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 Court must examine the Administrative Transcript to ascertain whether the correct legal standards were applied, and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000); Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). "Substantial evidence" is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla, " and 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 (1971).

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 and Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

B. The ALJ's Decision

The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 5, 2009. T. 13. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered from hyperthyroidism with Grave's Disease and mixed headaches, which qualified as a severe impairments within the meaning of the Social Security Regulations (the "Regulations"). T. 13-14. The ALJ also concluded that Plaintiff's obesity and complaints of low back pain were non-severe impairments. T. 14. At the third step of the analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the severity of any impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the Regulations. Id. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") "to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but should avoid work requiring a high degree of depth perception, working in close vicinity of moving machinery or at unprotected heights, and concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation." Id. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, because "[t]hose jobs required exposure to concentrate fumes, odors, and dusts, etc." T. 16. At step five, relying on the medical-vocational ...

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