United States District Court, W.D. New York
ROBBIE R. ROBINSON, on behalf of A.G., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
Kenneth R. Hiller, Esq., of Counsel LAW OFFICES OF KENNETH R. HILLER, Amherst, New York, Attorneys for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney, Western District of New York, MARY PAT FLEMING, AUSA, of Counsel United States Attorney's Office, Buffalo, New York, Attorneys for Defendant.
JOHN T. CURTIN, Sr., District Judge.
This matter has been transferred to the undersigned for all further proceedings, by order of Chief United States District Judge William M. Skretny dated November 14, 2013. Item 13
Plaintiff Robbie R. Robinson initiated this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits made on behalf of her minor child, A.G. 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 filed an application on August 27, 2009, for SSI benefits on behalf of A.G. (Tr. 116-119). A.G. was born on September 6, 1998 (Tr. 116). Plaintiff alleged that was disabled due to learning disability and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) with an onset date of October 1, 2005 (Tr. 121). Upon denial of the application at the initial level of agency review (Tr. 81-84), plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 86-87). The hearing was held on April 28, 2011, before ALJ William E. Straub (Tr. 30-79). Plaintiff, A.G., and Sharon L. Brown-Williams, A.G.'s cousin and former foster parent, testified at the hearing. Plaintiff was represented by counsel.
In a decision dated May 17, 2011, ALJ Straub found that A.G. was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (Tr. 13-26). Following the sequential evaluation process for determining disability for children, as outlined in the Social Security regulations at 20 C.F.R. § 416.924, the ALJ determined that A.G.'s impairments, while severe, did not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal the severity of any impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"), necessary for a finding of eligibility for child's SSI benefits. Id.
Plaintiff filed a timely administrative appeal (Tr. 7-9), and on December 20, 2012, the ALJ's decision became the final determination of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff then filed this action on February 12, 2013, 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) (Items 11, 14).
In support of her motion, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of a A.G.'s treating psychiatrist and failed to properly assess the credibility of plaintiff's witnesses. See Item 11. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. See Item 14.
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioners 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, 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), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 2881 (2013). 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. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982), quoted in Winkelsas v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575513, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. February 14, 2000).
However, "[b]efore the insulation of the substantial evidence test comes into play, it must first be determined that the facts of a particular case have been evaluated in the light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F.Supp. 1139, 1411 (E.D.Wis. 1976), quoted in Sharbaugh v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575632, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. March 20, 2000); Nunez v. Astrue, 2013 WL 3753421, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 17, 2013) (citing Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773). "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 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal."), quoted in McKinzie v. Astrue, 2010 WL 276740, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2010).
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 ...