United States District Court, W.D. New York
THOMAS J. SKUPIEN, JR., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.
1. In this action, Plaintiff Thomas Skupian challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").
2. On August 19, 2010, Skupien filed concurrent applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act, claiming an inability to work due to disability beginning June 1, 2008. (R. 64-65, 126-36.) His applications were denied on November 30, 2010. (R. 66-71.) Skupien then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ David Lewandowski on February 28, 2012. (R. 27-57.) Skupien was represented by counsel at the hearing, at which he appeared in person and testified. (Id.)
3. The ALJ considered his applications de novo and, on March 26, 2012, issued a written decision finding Skupien was not disabled. (R. 14-22.) Skupien requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on March 1, 2013 He commenced this civil action on April 23, 2013, challenging the Commissioner's final decision.
4. On December 3, 2013 and December 4, 2013, respectively, Skupien 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. 11 and 12.) The motions were fully briefed on February 6, 2014, at which time this Court took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is denied, Skupien's motion is granted, and this case is remanded for further proceedings.
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." Skupien 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) Skupien had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2008 (R. 16); (2) his degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral spine, degenerative joint disease of the hips, generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, and panic disorder with agoraphobia 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 (id.); (4) Skupien had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except he was limited to work involving only simple instructions, simple repetitive tasks with the occasional need to learn new tasks, a simple regular schedule, occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors, no interaction with the general public, and occasional simple decision-making, all in a low stress environment (defined as non-confrontational, no negotiations and no fast-paced production) (R. 18); (5) he was not able to perform her past relevant work (R. 20); and (6) jobs existed in substantial number in the national economy that an individual of his age, education, past relevant experience, and RFC could perform (R. 21).
11. Skupien contends the determination that he is not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on multiple errors of law. In particular, he maintains the ALJ: (a) erroneously failed to consider and weigh the opinion of state agency consultant John Schwab, D.O., (b) substituted his opinion in place of the medical evidence in making the RFC finding, which is not supported by substantial evidence; and (c) did not apply the appropriate legal standard in finding ...