United States District Court, E.D. New York
MICHAEL J. MURPHY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
NICHOLAS G. GARAUFIS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Michael J. Murphy brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), seeking judicial review of the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") decision that he is not disabled and therefore not entitled to supplemental security income ("SSI"). The Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") has filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is DENIED, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED, and this case is REMANDED to the SSA for further proceedings.
Plaintiff was born on June 2, 1958. (Administrative Record ("Rec.") (Dkt. 19) at 67, 131.) He has previously worked as a police officer and, most recently, as a security guard. (Id. at 141, 151-53, 207, 690.)
On July 15, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits (id. at 131-32), claiming that he had been disabled since February 28, 2010, due to anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), major depressive disorder, panic attacks, chronic sinusitis, and gastroesophagael reflux disease ("GERD") (id. at 140). The SSA denied his application on November 16, 2011. (Id. at 67, 71-76.)
Plaintiff requested a hearing on his application which was held before Administrative Law Judge Jay L. Cohen ("ALJ") on February 21, 2012. (Id. at 25-66.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at the hearing, as did medical expert Sharon Grand, Ph.D., and vocational expert Amy Leopold. (Id.) On March 28, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 5-24.) Plaintiff requested that the SSA Appeals Council review the ALJ's unfavorable decision. (Id. at 207-11.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 29, 2012 (id. at 1-4), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
On September 10, 2012, Plaintiff, now proceeding pro se, filed the instant Complaint seeking judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), of the SSA's decision that he was not disabled and therefore not entitled to SSI. (Compl. (Dkt. 1).) The Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). (Def. Mem. (Dkt. 17).)
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c)
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides: "After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." "Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where material facts are undisputed and where a 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). The standard for reviewing a Rule 12(c) motion is the same standard that is applied to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. See Bank of N.Y. v. First Millennium, Inc., 607 F.3d 905, 922 (2d Cir. 2010). To survive either kind of motion, the complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter... to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A court is required "to accept as true all allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party." Vietnam Ass'n for Victims of Agent Orange v. Dow Chem. Co., 517 F.3d 104, 115 (2d Cir. 2008). In addition to the pleadings, the court may consider "statements or documents incorporated by reference in the pleadings... and documents possessed by or known to the plaintiff and upon which it relied in bringing the suit." ATSI Commc'ns, Inc. v. Schaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007).
B. Review of Final Determinations of the Social Security Agency
"The role of a district court in reviewing the Commissioner's final decision is limited." Pogozelski v. Barnhart, No. 03-CV-2914 (JG), 2004 WL 1146059, at *9 (E.D.N.Y. May 19, 2004). "[I]t is up to the agency, and not [the] court, to weigh the conflicting evidence in the record." Clark v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 143 F.3d 115, 118 (2d Cir. 1998); see also Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008). "A district court may set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence' or if the decision is based on legal error." Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "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." Moran v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 108, 112 (2d Cir. 2009). Thus, as long as (1) the ALJ has applied the correct legal standard and (2) his findings are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate, the ALJ's decision is binding on this court. See Pogozelski, 2004 WL 1146059, at *9.
C. Determination of Disability
"To receive federal disability benefits, an applicant must be disabled' within the meaning of the [Social Security] Act." Shaw, 221 F.3d at 131; see also 42 U.S.C. § 423. A claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act if he has an "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). The impairment must be of "such severity that [claimant] 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." Id . § 423(d)(2)(A).
The SSA has promulgated a five-step procedure for determining whether a claimant is "disabled" under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). In Dixon v. Shalala, 54 F.3d 1019 (2d Cir. 1995), the Second Circuit described this five-step analysis as follows:
The first step in the sequential process is a decision whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If so, benefits are denied.
If not, the second step is a decision whether the claimant's medical condition or impairment is "severe." If not, benefits are denied.
If the impairment is "severe, " the third step is a decision whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the "Listing of Impairments"... of the social security regulations. These are impairments acknowledged by the Secretary to be of sufficient severity to preclude gainful employment. If a claimant's condition meets or equals the "listed" impairments, he or she is conclusively presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits.
If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy the "Listing of Impairments, " the fourth step is assessment of the individual's "residual functional capacity, " i.e., his capacity to engage in basic work activities, and a decision whether the claimant's residual functional capacity permits him to engage in his prior work. If the residual functional capacity is consistent with prior employment, benefits are denied.
If not, the fifth and final step is a decision whether a claimant, in light of his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience, has the capacity to perform "alternative occupations available in the national economy." If not, benefits are awarded.
Id. at 1022 (citations omitted).
The ultimate "burden is on the claimant to prove that he is disabled." Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 122 (2d Cir. 2000) (alterations omitted). But if the claimant shows at step four that his impairment renders him unable to perform his past work, there is a limited shift in the burden of proof at step five that requires the Commissioner to "demonstrate that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy ...