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Stevens v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

June 27, 2014

JUSTIN FRANCIS STEVENS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. Justin Stevens challenges the decision of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").

2. Alleging disability due to mental illness beginning October 11, 2008, Stevens applied for Social Security benefits on June 1, 2009.[1] The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denied that application, and as result, Stevens requested an administrative hearing. He received that hearing before ALJ Timothy M. McGuan on January 25, 2011.The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on February 16, 2011 issued a decision denying Stevens's application. Stevens filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, but the Council denied that request, prompting him to file the current civil action, challenging Defendant's final decision.[2]

3. On April 16, 2014, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Stevens followed suit three days later. Briefing concluded in May of 2014, at which time this Court took the motions under review. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Stevens'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).

6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the 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) Stevens has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended onset date (R. 15);[3] (2) Stevens suffers from bipolar disorder and a history of alcohol abuse, both severe impairments (R. 16); (3) he does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the criteria necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the regulations (id.); (4) he retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with some non-exertional restrictions, and he can perform past work as a tire buffer (R. 17, 24); and alternatively (5) there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy - including a "packaging machine operator" - that he can make a successful adjustment to and that he can perform. (R. 24-25.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Stevens was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, from his onset date through the date of the decision. (R. 25.)

9. Stevens raises several objections to the ALJ's finding. Each that require discussion will be addressed below.

10. Stevens first argues that the ALJ failed to classify his carpel tunnel syndrome as a "severe impairment" at Step 2. To support this argument, Stevens relies primarily on a report compiled before his onset date that suggests he still has numbness and will "occasionally drop things from his right hand." (R. 213.) But there is simply no merit to the argument that this constitutes a severe impairment. The ALJ correctly noted that:

the claimant offered no complaints of carpal tunnel syndrome or of a similar impairment, either in documentary evidence or through testimony at the hearing. There are no follow up medical records after July 2003. The claimant's primary care physician did not mention carpal tunnel syndrome or any type ...

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