United States District Court, N.D. New York
MARK A. SCHNEIDER, ESQ., OFFICE OF MARK A. SCHNEIDER, Plattsburgh, NY, Attorneys for Plaintiff.
BENIL ABRAHAM, ESQ., DAVID B. MYERS, ESQ., REBECCA H. ESTELLE, ESQ., OFFICE OF REGIONAL GENERAL COUNSEL, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION REGION II New York, NY, Attorneys for Defendant.
DAVID N. HURD, District Judge.
Plaintiff Melissa Caron ("Caron" or "plaintiff") brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of defendant Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner" or "defendant") final decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties have filed their briefs, including the Administrative Record on Appeal, and the matter has been submitted for decision without oral argument.
Caron filed applications for DIB and SSI claiming a period of disability beginning on August 1, 2008. R. at 168-77. These applications were initially denied on August 7, 2009. Id . 103-108. At plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on December 21, 2010. Id . 60-100. A supplemental hearing was conducted to obtain additional testimony from a Vocational Expert ("VE") on July 14, 2011. Id . 37-50. The ALJ rendered a written decision on August 26, 2011, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from August 1, 2008 through the date of his decision. Id . 15-28. Plaintiff timely appealed this unfavorable disability determination to the Appeals Council. Id . 11. On November 30, 2012, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. R. at 1-4.
Caron filed this action on December 13, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits. Because the parties are familiar with the underlying facts, they are discussed only to the extent necessary to address plaintiff's appeal.
A. Standard of Review
A court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied. Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 305 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id . (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).
"To determine on appeal whether an 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 v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citing Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). If the Commissioner's disability determination is supported by substantial evidence, that determination is conclusive. See id. Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld-even if the court's independent review of the evidence may differ from the Commissioner's. Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982); Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992).
However, "where there is a reasonable basis for doubting whether the Commissioner applied the appropriate legal standards, " the decision should not be affirmed even though the ultimate conclusion reached is arguably supported by substantial evidence. Martone v. Apfel, 70 F.Supp.2d 145, 148 (N.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)).
B. Disability Determination-The Five-Step Evaluation Process
The Social Security Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In addition, the Act requires that a claimant's:
physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.
Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The ALJ must follow a five-step evaluation process in deciding whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity is not disabled, and is therefore not entitled to benefits. Id . § 404.1520(b).
If the claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, then step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments which significantly restricts his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. Id . § 404.1520(c).
If the claimant is found to suffer from a severe impairment or combination of impairments, then step three requires the ALJ to determine whether, based solely on medical evidence, the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations (the "Listings"). Id . § 404.1520(d); see also id. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets one or more of the Listings, then the claimant is "presumptively disabled." Martone, 70 F.Supp.2d at 149 (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984)); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).
If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, step four requires the ALJ to assess whether-despite the claimant's severe impairment-he has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The burden of proof with regard to these first four steps is on the claimant. Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996) (citing Carroll v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983)).
If it is determined that the claimant cannot perform his past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. Id . This step requires the ALJ to examine whether the claimant can do any type of work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The regulations provide that factors such as a claimant's age, physical ability, education, and previous work experience should be evaluated to determine whether a claimant has the RFC to perform work in any of five categories of jobs: very heavy, heavy, medium, light, and sedentary. Perez, 77 F.3d at 46 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 2). "[T]he Commissioner need only show that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do; [she] need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's residual functional capacity." Poupore, 566 F.3d at 306 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2)).
C. ALJ's Decision
The ALJ found that Caron had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2008, the alleged onset date. R. at 17. The ALJ next found that plaintiff's low back disorder, skin disorder, dysthymic disorder, anxiety disorder, endometriosis, obesity, and borderline intellectual functioning were severe impairments, but that this combination of severe impairments did not meet or equal any of the Listings. Id . 19. The ALJ then determined that plaintiff retained the RFC to perform sedentary work with a number of limitations. Id . 20. Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform:
[S]edentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except limited to simple work in a setting with a low level of interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public; occasionally lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds; frequently lift and carry 10 pounds; sit about four hours in a work day with normal breaks, with sitting limited to about two hours at a time; stand about two hours in a work day, with standing limited to about one hour at a time; walk two hours in a work day with normal breaks, with walking limited to about three blocks at a time several times a day; occasionally reach overhead with each upper extremity; frequently reach in other directions with each upper extremity; frequently handle with the dominant right upper extremity; continuously finger and feel with the dominant upper extremity; occasionally push and pull with the dominant upper extremity; frequently handle, finger, and feel with the non-dominant upper extremity; never push and pull with the non-dominant upper extremity; occasionally use right foot controls and occasionally use left foot controls; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffold; never balance; occasionally climb stairs and ramps; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never be exposed to ...