United States District Court, W.D. New York
FAARI M. SQUIRES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.
1. In this action, Plaintiff Tari Squires challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").
2. Squires first applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act on September 7, 2006, claiming she had been unable to work due to disability since March 11, 2006. (R. 155-57.) The application was disapproved, and Squires did not appeal that decision. (R. 23, 48-51, 91.) She again filed for DIB on June 1, 2008, alleging she had been unable to work since March 12, 2006 due to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a hip replacement, and osteoarthritis. (R. 62-70, 201, 206.) The application was denied on August 11, 2008. (R. 92, 108-111.) Squires then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ Nancy Gregg Pasiecznik on November 12, 2010. (R. 52-90.) Squires was represented by counsel at the hearing, at which she appeared in person and testified. (Id.)
3. The ALJ considered her DIB application de novo and, on July 29, 2011, issued a written decision finding Squires was not disabled under the Act. (R. 23-42.) The Appeals Council denied Squires' request for review on June 28, 2013. This civil action, commenced on August 27, 2013, challenges the Commissioner's final decision.
4. On January 27, 2014 and March 21, 2014, respectively, Squires 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. 8 and 13.) The motions were deemed fully briefed as of May 8, 2014, at which time this Court took the matter under advisement.
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." Squires 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. Applying the sequential evaluation in the instant case, the ALJ found: (1) Squires had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 28, 2006 (R. 28); (2) her history of release of the A1 pulley on her right long finger and left index finger, cyclic citrulline pepti (CCP) positive/rheumatoid factor negative rheumatoid arthritis with a myofascial component, residuals status post right total hip replacement with prosthesis in 2004, underweight status, and nicotine addiction 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. 29); (4) Squires had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with certain specified limitations (R. 31-32); and (5) jobs existed in substantial number in the national economy that an individual of her age, education, past relevant experience, and RFC could perform (R. 42).
11. Squires contends the ALJ did not properly assess her subjective complaints, the RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence, and the ALJ did not fully develop the ...