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Rafferty v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 9, 2014

CATHERINE RAFFERTY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

LACHMAN & GORTON PETER A. GORTON, ESQ., Endicott, NY, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

OFFICE OF REGIONAL GENERAL COUNSEL SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION REGION II, JOANNE JACKSON PENGELLY, ESQ., REBECCA H. ESTELLE, ESQ., New York, NY, Attorneys for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

DAVID N. HURD, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Catherine Rafferty ("Rafferty" or "plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to §§ 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 1383(c)(3), to review a final determination of the defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties have filed their briefs, including the Administrative Record on Appeal, and the matter has been submitted for decision without oral argument.[1]

II. BACKGROUND

Rafferty filed an application for DIB and SSI on November 20, 2008, claiming a period of disability beginning on July 31, 2007. She was twenty-seven years old when she filed her application. Her claims were initially denied on April 7, 2009. Upon plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 9, 2011. Plaintiff attended the hearing and was represented by counsel. Her cousin, William Rafferty, with whom plaintiff resides, also attended the hearing and provided testimony. Plaintiff's alleged disability is primarily caused by a recurring skin condition, side effects of steroids she takes for the skin condition, back pain, obesity, and asthma.[2] The ALJ rendered a decision on March 18, 2011, denying her claims.

On March 29, 2011, plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. In April and May 2011, plaintiff's counsel submitted over 120 pages of additional medical records from her treating physician assistant, Paul Hodgeman ("P.A. Hodgeman"), to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review on August 21, 2012. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed this action on October 16, 2012.

III. DISCUSSION

A. tandard of Review

The scope of a court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determinating whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied. Poupore v. Astrue , 566 F.3d 303, 305 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id . (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

"To determine on appeal whether an 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 v. Bowen , 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citing Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB , 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). If the Commissioner's disability determination is supported by substantial evidence, that determination is conclusive. Id . Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld-even if the court's independent review of the evidence may differ from the Commissioner's. See Rutherford v. Schweiker , 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982); Rosado v. Sullivan , 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992).

However, "where there is a reasonable basis for doubting whether the Commissioner applied the appropriate legal standards, " the decision should not be affirmed even though the ultimate conclusion reached is arguably supported by substantial evidence. Martone v. Apfel , 70 F.Supp.2d 145, 148 (N.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing Johnson v. Bowen , 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)).

B. Disability Determination-The Five Step Evaluation Process

The Social Security Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any 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). In addition, the Act requires that a claimant's

physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

The ALJ must follow a five step evaluative process in determining whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At Step One, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity he is not disabled, and he is not entitled to benefits. Id . §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).

If the claimant is not engaged is substantial gainful employment, then Step Two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments which significantly restricts his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. Id . §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant is found to suffer from a severe impairment, then Step Three requires the ALJ to determine whether, based solely on medical evidence, the impairment meets an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. Id . §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); see also id. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If so, then the claimant is "presumptively disabled." Martone , 70 F.Supp.2d at 149 (citing Ferraris v. Heckler , 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, Step Four requires the ALJ to assess whether-despite the claimant's severe impairment(s)-he has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). The burden of proof with regard to the first four steps is on the claimant. Perez v. Chater , 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996). If it is determined that claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the agency for Step Five. Id . This step requires the agency to examine whether the claimant can do any type of work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). The regulations provide that factors such as a claimant's age, physical ability, education, and previous work experience should be evaluated to determine whether a claimant has the RFC to perform work in any of five categories of jobs: very heavy, heavy, medium, light, and sedentary. Perez , 77 F.3d at 46 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 2). "[T]he Commissioner need only show that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do; [she] need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's residual functional capacity." Poupore , 566 F.3d at 306 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2)).

Where the alleged disability involves a mental impairment, there is a "special technique" that must be applied at Steps Two and Three and at each level of the administrative review process. Kohler v. Astrue , 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a. This technique requires consideration of "four broad functional areas, " including: "[a]ctivities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The first three areas are rated on a five-point scale: "[n]one, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme." Id . § 404.1520a(c)(4). "[I]f the degree of limitation in each of the first three areas is rated mild' or better, and no episodes of decompensation are identified, then the reviewing authority generally will conclude that the claimant's mental impairment is not severe' and will deny benefits." Kohler , 546 F.3d at 266 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(1)).

If, on the other hand, the claimant's mental impairment is deemed severe, "the reviewing authority will first compare the relevant medical findings and the functional limitation ratings to the criteria of listed mental disorders in order to determine whether the impairment meets or is equivalent in severity to any listed mental disorder." Id . (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(2)). If so, the claimant is disabled. Id . If not, the reviewing authority then assesses the claimant's RFC at Step Four. Id . (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(3)). The application of this special technique must be documented. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(e).

C. Analysis

The ALJ determined that Rafferty had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2007, the alleged onset date. He further determined that her skin condition, obesity, and asthma constitute severe impairments. He also noted that the medical record indicates some reports of lower back pain, a thyroid condition, and gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"), but does not support a finding that such ailments amount to severe impairments within the meaning of the Regulations. The ALJ next found that plaintiff's alleged mental impairments-anxiety and depression-are not severe because they "do not cause more than minimal limitations in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental work activities." R. at 17. In reaching this ...


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