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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

May 1, 2014

LISA SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant

Decided: April 30, 2014

Page 261

For Plaintiff: JAYA ANN SHURTLIFF, ESQ., Law Offices of Kenneth Hiller, Amherst, New York.

For Defendant: WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney, Western District of New York, (GAIL Y. MITCHELL, AUSA, of Counsel), United States Attorney's Office, Buffalo, New York.


JOHN T. CURTIN, United States District Judge.

Page 262

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 Smith 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 disability insurance benefits, as provided for in Title II 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 granted, and the Commissioner's motion is denied.


Plaintiff was born on March 4, 1972 (Tr. 29, 148).[2] She applied for disability insurance benefits on February 16, 2010, alleging

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disability due to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, with an onset date of September 22, 2008 (Tr. 148). Upon denial of the application at the initial level of agency review (Tr. 50), plaintiff requested a hearing which was held on August 29, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) John P. Costello (Tr. 24-49). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel.

On September 8, 2011, ALJ Costello issued a decision denying plaintiff's application for Title II benefits (Tr. 9-19). Following the five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims outlined in the Social Security Regulations at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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 12.04 (Affective Disorders) and 12.06 (Anxiety Related Disorders) (Tr. 15-16). The ALJ found that the evidence in the record, including reports and opinions of consultative and treating medical sources, plaintiffs' work records, and 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 work at all exertional levels, with certain non-exertional limitations[3] (including being limited to low stress work involving limited contact with the public and co-workers) (Tr. 16-18). Based on her age (36 as of the alleged onset date; 39 at the time of the hearing), education (high school), work experience (past relevant work as a bill collector), and RFC, and considering the testimony of a vocational expert (Dr. Peter Manti) with regard to the effect plaintiff's non-exertional limitations would have 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. 18-19). 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 27, 2012, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff then filed this action on November 26, 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 for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the case should be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings because the ALJ failed to properly assess the opinions of treating and consultative medical sources in determining plaintiff's RFC[4]. See Items 10, 13. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's determination is supported

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by substantial evidence, and should be affirmed. See Items 9, 12.


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, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938), quoted in Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (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. ...

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