United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, District Judge.
1. In this action, Plaintiff Ruthann Richardson challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").
2. On September 27, 2010, Richardson filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act, claiming she was unable to work since July 13, 2006 because of carpal tunnel syndrome, injuries to her arms, shoulders, and neck, depression, and anxiety. (R. 119-20, 138.) Her application was denied on September 21, 2010. (R. 55-62.) Richardson then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ David Lewandowski on November 15, 2011. (R. 22-47.) Richardson was represented by counsel at the hearing, at which she appeared in person and testified. (Id.) Prior to giving testimony, Richardson amended her disability onset date to June 23, 2008. (R. 25-27.)
3. The ALJ considered her DIB application de novo and, on January 9, 2012, issued a written decision finding Richardson was not disabled. (R. 6-21.) Richardson requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on March 12, &2013. She commenced this civil action on April 16, 2013, challenging the Commissioner's final decision.
4. On January 16, 2014 and January 24, 2014, respectively, Richardson and the Commissioner each filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 7 and 9.) The motions were fully briefed on February 21, 2014, at which time this Court took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Richardson' motion is denied.
5. 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).
6. "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).
7. 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.
8. The 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.
9. Although the claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, 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). The final step of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her physical ability, age, education, and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a person having the claimant's qualifications could perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).
10. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the fivestep process: (1) Richardson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 13, 2006, the initial alleged disability onset date (R. 11); (2) her mild disc and degenerative changes in the cervical spine, cervical radiculopathy to the bilateral shoulders and hands, lumbar spine pain, and headaches were severe impairments within the meaning of the Act (id.); (3) these impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. 13); (4) Richardson had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with the exception that she could not reach overhead and must avoid bright lights and noise similar to heavy traffic (id.); (5) she was not able to perform her past relevant work (R. 16); and (6) jobs existed in substantial number in the national economy that an individual of her age, education, past relevant experience, and RFC could perform (R. 16-17).
11. Richardson contends the determination that she is not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on multiple errors of law. In particular, she maintains the ALJ erroneously failed to give controlling weight to the opinions of her treating physicians, fully develop the record, properly assess her credibility, and ...