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Ritchie v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 13, 2014

LORRAINE RITCHIE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

GREGORY R. GILBERT, ESQ., AMDURSKY, PELKY, FENNELL & WALLEN, P.C., Oswego, NY, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

ROBERT R. SCHRIVER, ESQ., OFFICE OF REGIONAL GENERAL COUNSEL, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION REGION II, New York, NY, Attorneys for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

DAVID N. HURD, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Lorraine Ritchie ("Ritchie" 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 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

Ritchie was born in April 1963, making her forty-six years old when she filed an application for SSI on December 29, 2009. She initially claimed a period of disability beginning on October 9, 2000, when she was injured in a motor vehicle accident. Her claims were denied on March 3, 2010. At plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a video hearing on May 23, 2011. Ritchie was represented by counsel at the hearing, during which she agreed to amend her alleged onset date to January 1, 2010. Her alleged disability is primarily caused by neck and back pain, which she has suffered since her accident in 2000. She reportedly experiences breathing difficulty brought on by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD") and has mental and cognitive limitations as well. Donald Woolwine, a vocational expert, also testified at the hearing.

The ALJ rendered a written decision on June 15, 2011, denying plaintiff's claims. On August 3, 2011, she appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review on September 19, 2012. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed this action on November 15, 2012.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard 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 ...


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