United States District Court, W.D. New York
ROY A. LUSSIER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
DECISION and ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Roy A. Lussier ("Plaintiff"), who is represented by counsel, brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). This Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Presently before the Court are the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dkt. ##11, 14.
On August 16, 2007, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI alleging that he was disabled beginning August 14, 2007 due to HIV, strokes, back pain, and Hepatitis C. T. 155-64, 189. Those applications were denied on March 20, 2008, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). T. 101-107. Plaintiff's hearing was conducted before ALJ Bruce R. Mazzarella on June 3, 2010. T, 31-98. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified that the primary problem interfering with his ability to work was related to his mental health. T. 42. Plaintiff's friend, Patricia Fountain, and an independent Vocational Expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. T. 80-89, 89-98. The ALJ issued a written decision on July 21, 2010, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 11-30.
In applying the familiar five-step sequential analysis, as contained in the administrative regulations promulgated by the SSA, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lynch v. Astrue, No. 07-CV-249 , 2008 WL 3413899, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 8, 2008) (detailing the five steps), the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD")/anxiety, depression, personality disorder, HIV with some limitations based upon fatigue, and chronic back discomfort, and that those impairments did not meet or equal the Listings set forth at 20 CFR 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. T. 16-18. Because Plaintiff could not be found disabled at the third step, the ALJ proceeded to determine that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for an 8-hour workday with normal breaks and meal periods; and stand/or walk for an 8-hour workday with normal breaks and meal periods; and was limited to a low-contact, low-stress environment with no sun exposure. T. 18. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a case aide, telemarketer, laborer, and construction worker. T. 24-25. Relying on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled as he was capable of making an adjustment to other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. T. 25.
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 19, 2011. T. 1-5. Plaintiff then filed this action on February 19, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Dkt. #1.
In his motion, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of ALJ Mazzarella is erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence contained in the record, and seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision. In the alternative, Plaintiff requests the Court to remand the action to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Pl. Mem. (Dkt. #11-1) at 15-25. The Commissioner also moves for judgment on the pleadings on grounds that the ALJ's decision is correct and is supported by substantial evidence. Comm'r Mem. (Dkt. #15) at 22-30.
For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and Plaintiff's motion is denied.
I. General Legal Principles
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Section 405(g) provides that the District Court "shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2007). The section directs that when considering such a claim, the Court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); see also Metro. Stevedore Co. v. Rambo , 521 U.S. 121, 149 (1997).
When determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court's task is "to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn." Brown v. Apfel , 174 F.3d 59, 62 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Mongeur v. Heckler , 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). Section 405(g) limits the scope of the Court's review to two inquiries: determining whether the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole, and whether the Commissioner's conclusions are based upon an erroneous legal standard. Green-Younger v. Barnhart , 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003); see also Mongeur , 722 F.2d at 1038 (finding a reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo).
Under Rule 12(c), judgment on the pleadings may be granted where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc. , 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988). A party's motion will be dismissed if, after a review of the pleadings, the Court is convinced that the party does not set out factual allegations that are "enough to raise a right to relief beyond the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).
II. Medical Evidence
A. Treating Physicians
The record contains extensive treatment notes from Plaintiff's primary care provider Dr. Fatai Gbadamosi from 2007 to 2010. Plaintiff was treated by Dr. Gbadamosi for a number of medical issues, primarily related to hypertension, HIV, back pain, and numbness/weakness in his left leg. Plaintiff's physical examinations yielded entirely normal results, with the exception of decreased range of motion in the left hip. T. 236-250, 295-323. 377-97, 400 Likewise, Plaintiff's viral load and CD4 numbers remained within normal ranges throughout the relevant period despite occasional missed doses of his antiretroviral drugs. Id.
On October 30, 2008, Plaintiff first reported to Dr. Gbadamosi that he had anxiety, racing thoughts, and photophobia. Though he recently started taking Paxil and Valium, there was no improvement in Plaintiff's mood. Accordingly, Dr. Gbadamosi recommended that Plaintiff see a psychiatrist. T. 308-310.
In May, 2010, Dr. Gbadamosi completed a medical source statement, finding that Plaintiff's ability to understand, remember, and carry out instructions were not affected by his impairments, but that he had "marked limitations" in interacting appropriately with people/supervisors/co-workers and in responding appropriately to usual work situations or work changes. T. 374-75.
The record shows that Plaintiff sought mental health treatment at Spectrum Health Services from February to June, 2009. On March 30, Plaintiff was administered an initial psychiatric assessment, during which he complained of panic attacks, auditory hallucinations, and flashbacks. T. 404. He stated that Paxil, Wellbutrin, and Ambien afforded him little relief. Id . On examination, Plaintiff was observed to be alert, fully oriented, with depressed mood, aggressive affect, and clear thoughts. T. 405. On his termination form from Spectrum, the evaluator assessed Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning ...