United States District Court, W.D. New York
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. Item 15.
Plaintiff Lisa Marie Cornell initiated this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("the Act"), to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Disabled Adult Child ("DAC") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits, as provided for in Titles II and XVI of the Act. 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 applied for DAC and SSI benefits on September 17, 2008, alleging disability due to learning problems and depression, with an onset date of December 31, 1998 (Tr. 101-104, 105-107). Upon denial of the application at the initial level of agency review (Tr. 63-67, 68-72), plaintiff requested a hearing which was held on October 4, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William M. Weir (Tr. 28-60). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by attorney Amanda Jordan.
On February 22, 2011, ALJ Weir issued a decision denying plaintiff's applications (Tr. 17-24). Following the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining eligibility for benefits under the Act, as outlined in the Social Security Regulations at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a), the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal the severity of any impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"), specifically, Listings 12.02 (Organic Mental Disorders) and 12.04 (Affective Disorders) (Tr. 19-20). The ALJ found that the evidence in the record, including school records, reports of consultative psychological and intelligence evaluations, behavioral health assessments, and the plaintiff's testimony at the hearing regarding the limiting effect of her symptoms, demonstrated that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of exertional work involving simple, repetitive tasks with normal assistance and supervision, with occasional contact with co-workers and the public (Tr. 20-23). Based on her age (21 as of the alleged onset date; 33 at the time of the hearing), education (8th grade; no GED), and work experience (part time; not "past relevant work"), and considering the effects of her non-exertional limitations on the occupational base of unskilled work at all exertional levels, the ALJ determined that a finding of "not disabled" was appropriate under the framework of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the "Grids"), Rule 204.00 (Tr. 23-24). See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 204.00.
The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final determination on September 24, 2012, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff then filed this action on November 15, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the parties now move for judgment on the pleadings under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c).
In support of her motion, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly assess plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity; failed to properly assess plaintiff's credibility; and failed to obtain the testimony of a vocational expert to determine what jobs existing in significant numbers are available for an individual with plaintiff's limitations. See Items 14, 18. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence, and should be affirmed. See Item 15.
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioner's 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); see also 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 Marquez v. Colvin, 2013 WL 5568718, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 9, 2013) (citing DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998) (upholding the Commissioner's decision where there was substantial evidence for both sides)).
In addition, it is the function of the Commissioner, not the reviewing court, "to resolve evidentiary conflicts and to appraise the credibility of witnesses, including claimant." Carroll v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983); cf. Cichocki v. Astrue, 534 F.Appx. 71, 75 (2d Cir. Sept. 5, 2013). "Genuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, " Veino, 312 F.3d at 588, and the court "must show special deference" to credibility determinations made by the ALJ, "who had the opportunity to observe the witnesses' demeanor" while testifying. Yellow Freight Sys. Inc. v. Reich, 38 F.3d 76, 81 (2d Cir.1994).
II. Standards for Determining Eligibility for Disability Benefits
To be eligible for SSDI or SSI benefits under the Social Security Act, plaintiff must present proof sufficient to show that 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). As indicated above, 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 has lasted (or may be expected to last) for a continuous period of at least 12 months which "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909 (duration requirement). If the claimant's impairment is severe and of qualifying duration, the ALJ then determines whether it meets or equals the criteria of an impairment found in 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 has the residual functional capacity to performing his or her past ...