United States District Court, W.D. New York
PATTI A. JONES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DECISION ORDER and ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Patti A. Jones ("Plaintiff"), who is represented by counsel, brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). This Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Presently before the Court are the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dkt. Nos. 10 and 18.
In her motion, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was erroneous and not supported by the substantial evidence contained in the record and seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision. In the alternative, Plaintiff requests the Court to remand the action to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Dkt. No. 11.
The Commissioner also moves for judgment on the pleadings on grounds that the ALJ's decision was correct, was supported by substantial evidence, and was made in accordance with applicable law. Dkt. No. 19. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and Plaintiff's motion is denied.
On February 2, 2007, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI alleging that she was disabled beginning August 30, 2005, due to a learning disability, depression, migraine headaches, and back pain. After her applications were denied on May 8, 2007, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. T. 39-44, 49-51, 69-80, 101.
Following a hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision on March 3, 2009, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. T. 12-25.
The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final determination on March 25, 2011, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. T. 1-4. Plaintiff then filed this action on May 24, 2011 for 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). Dkt. Nos. 1, 10, 18.
In applying the five-step sequential analysis for evaluating a claimant's application for Social Security benefits, as set forth in the administrative regulations promulgated by the SSA,  the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not working since the alleged onset date (step one); suffered the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, mild; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; and passive dependent personality disorder; and also found that her complaints of daily migraine headaches and occasional back pain were not severe (step two). T. 17-18. He determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments (step three). T. 18-20. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had an essentially unlimited residual function capacity ("RFC") to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, push, and pull without limitation, with non-exertional limitations regarding her ability to understand, remember, and carry out complex and detailed tasks, and occasionally interact with the general public. Plaintiff had no limitations in her ability to interact with co-workers and supervisors. T. 20. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a motel housekeeper (step four), but could perform other work in the economy, based on her age, education, work experience, and RFC (step five). T. 24.
The ALJ adopted the opinion of consultive examiner Dr. Meng, who found that Plaintiff had no physical limitations. T. 22. Likewise, a State Agency Disability Determination Service ("DDS") review physician opined that Plaintiff's dysthymic disorder resulted in mild restriction of activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and she had no episodes of deterioration. T. 23.
The ALJ considered the opinion of consultive examiner Renee Baskin, Ph.D., who found that, although Plaintiff had medical/physical problems that might interfere with her ability to maintain a regular work schedule, she could also understand simple directions and instructions, perform simple tasks independently, maintain attention and concentration, learn a new task with supervision, make appropriate decisions, and relate adequately with others. Baskin determined that Plaintiff's psychiatric problems should not be significant enough to interfere with her ability to function on a daily basis. T. 23.
The ALJ accorded limited weight to the opinion of Dr. Carl Roth, D.O., who said that Plaintiff could only perform "light duty" work, had a mild learning disability with depression that caused significant problems. Dr. Roth also said he was not sure how Plaintiff's back pain limited her, but she did not have limitations in standing, sitting, bending, and pushing. Dr. Roth noted that Plaintiff's overall mental functioning was stable to good. Plaintiff could occasionally lift and carry ten pounds, frequently lift and carry five pounds, stand and/or walk less than two hours per day, sit one hour per day, but could not push or pull with her upper extremities. The ALJ found Dr. Roth's statements as to Plaintiff's limitations inconsistent with objective findings or any significant physical impairment. T. 22.
The ALJ also discounted the opinion of social worker Valerie Nowak on the basis that she was not a medical doctor. Ms. Nowak found that Plaintiff had "fair ability to remember work-like procedures and good ability to understand, remember, and carry out very short and simple instructions." T. 23.
Finally, the ALJ rejected two opinions of plaintiff's disability by Dr. Gupta and Dr. McTernan as lacking support of reasonable signs and diagnoses, including imaging tests and also because their opinions were based solely on Plaintiff's subjective statements. T. 23.
Plaintiff testified at her hearing that she has pain from her lower back to her middle back and sometimes "stabbing" pain in her right leg, and that pain is sometimes worse than others. She said she could stand for ten minutes, walk for 10 to 15 minutes, and sit for short periods of time. Her husband did most of the shopping and housework. Plaintiff stated she could lift a frying pan and half-gallon of liquid, but not a full gallon. Because of her headaches, Plaintiff needed to lay down in a dark room four to five times a week, that she could not bend, and the cold bothers her.
The ALJ found that although Plaintiff had impairments that are considered "severe" based on the requirements in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(B) and 416.920(b), she was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and was thus not entitled to DIB or eligible for SSI payments.
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, No. 07-cv-341 , 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. Vasquez-Ortiz v. Apfel , 48 F.Supp.2d 250 (W.D.N.Y. 1999) (quoting Sample v. Schweiker , 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982)).
However, the Court must first determine that the ALJ applied the correct legal principles before applying the substantial evidence standard. Johnson v. Bowen , 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987); Lugo v. Chater , 932 F.Supp. 497, 500-01 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (same). "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 at 985 ("Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal.").
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 Svcs. , 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983); cf. Cichocki v. Astrue , 534 Fed.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. Plaintiff's Medical History
A. Plaintiff's Primary Care Providers
The record contains treatment notes from Plaintiff's primary care providers Dr. Thomas McTernan and Dr. Carl Roth. T. 158-163. Plaintiff saw Dr. McTernan on February 21, 2005, complaining of diffuse pain in the left axilla, which started in her back and radiated around her side to her front. T. 159, 160. Dr. McTernan suspected nerve impingement and he ordered x-rays of Plaintiff's cervical spine. T. 160. X-rays of Plaintiff's cervical spine on February 22, 2005, were normal. T. 167. X-rays of Plaintiff's thoracic spine on the same date showed very slightly decreased height of the T-10 vertebral body, suggesting a ...