United States District Court, W.D. New York
COLIN A. SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, District Judge.
1. Colin Smith challenges the determination of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the Act).
2. Smith, alleging a disability onset date of September 5, 2008, filed an application for supplemental security benefits. The Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denied his application, and as result, he requested an administrative hearing. He received that hearing before ALJ Mark Sochaczewsky on May 17, 2011. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on June 3, 2011, he issued a decision denying Smith's application for benefits. Smith filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, but the Council denied that request, prompting him to file the current civil action on March 4, 2013, challenging Defendant's final decision.
3. On September 12, 2013, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Smith followed suit on October 28, 2013. Briefing concluded on November 27, 2013, at which time this Court took the motions under consideration. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Smith's is denied.
4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See Grey v. Heckler , 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano , 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). Substantial evidence is that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla"; it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker , 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).
5. "To determine on appeal whether the 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 on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen , 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan , 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984). This Court must, however, "independently determine if the Commissioner's decision applied the correct legal standards in determining that the plaintiff was not disabled." Valder v. Barnhart , 410 F.Supp.2d 134, 138 (W.D.N.Y. 2006). "Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal." Townley v. Heckler , 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984)
6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.
7. This five-step process is detailed below:
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.
Berry v. Schweiker , 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); see also Rosa v. Callahan , 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, but the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the fifth and final step. See Bowen , 482 U.S. at 146 n. 5; Ferraris v. Heckler , 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).
8. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings:
(1) Smith has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (R. 17.)
(2) Smith's "diabetes, hip/leg and heart (C[ongestive] H[eart] F[ailure])" constitute severe impairments. (Id.)
(3) He does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the criteria necessary for finding a disabling ...