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Ball v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

September 9, 2014

LINDA L. BALL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

DECISION and ORDER

MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Linda L. Ball ("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 her applications for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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. ##8, 12.

BACKGROUND

On April 8, 1996, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB alleging disability beginning on January 2, 1996. T. 106-18.[2] Her claim was denied initially, and then on reconsideration. T. 78-9. A hearing was held on January 13, 1998, after which an unfavorable decision was issued dated October 27, 1998. A request for review was filed with the Appeals Council, which was denied on January 22, 2002. A civil action in this Court was filed on February 4, 2002 (02-CV-097JTE). T. 248-300. Former District Judge John T. Elfvin reversed the decision of the Commissioner and remanded the matter for further proceedings on the basis that determination of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was not supported by substantial evidence. T. 296-300. The Court directed that further consideration be made of the impact of Plaintiff's nonexertional limitations. T. 300.

Upon remand, Plaintiff appeared and testified at two hearings dated October 10, and November 16, 2007. T. 890-928, 929-49. Plaintiff's applications were amended to allege a closed period of disability from January 1, 1996, to June 20, 2000. T. 895-96. ALJ Nancy Lee Gregg issued a decision dated December 11, 2008, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 227-46.

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 that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 2, 1996, through June 20, 2000, the day Plaintiff returned to work. T. 232. Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: hypothyroidism, gastroesophagel reflux disease ("GERD"), sliding hiatal hernia, hypertension, some degree of myofascial pain, vitamin B-12 deficiency, headaches, sinusitis, and depression. T. 233. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of the Listings set forth at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. T. 23-24. 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, push, and pull up to 20 pounds occassionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for 2 hours at a time and 8 hours total with normal breaks; and stand/walk for about 6 hours total with normal breaks in an 8-hour workday. T. 235. She further found that Plaintiff should avoid climbing ladders or scaffolds and working at unprotected heights; and avoid prolonged concentrated exposure to pollens, excessive dust, fumes, odors, gases. Id . Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a licensed practical nurse ("LPN") because the requirements of that job exceeded her RFC. T. 242-43. Relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and the testimony of a Vocational Expert ("VE"), the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform work in the national economy, and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 243-46.[3]

Plaintiff filed Exceptions to the ALJ's Unfavorable Decision with the Appeals Council on January 13, 2009. T. 221-23. Three years later, by notice dated February 14, 2012, the Appeals Council declined jurisdiction. Dkt. #1, Ex. B. Plaintiff then commenced the instant civil action. Dkt. #1.

In the present motion, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the ALJ is erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence on the grounds that: (1) The ALJ erred when she found Plaintiff's alleged cognitive disorder to be a non-severe impairment; (2) Plaintiff's mental RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence; (3) the ALJ applied the improper standard in assessing Plaintiff's credibility; and (4) the VE testimony did not provide substantial evidence to support the denial of benefits. Pl. Mem. (Dkt. #8-1) 8-16. The Commissioner cross-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. #13) 17-25.

For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's cross-motion is granted.

DISCUSSION

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 consultative organicity evaluation was administered by David S. Donofrio, Ph.D., on August 13, 1996, during which Plaintiff reported issues with memory and confusion that had been linked to Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue syndrome. T. 199-204. She further reported that during her job as an LPN, she began making mistakes at the hospital, falling asleep, not making nursing notes, and administering the wrong medication to patients. T. 200. Dr. Donofrio noted regression in Plaintiff's verbal ability, confusion, and loss of focus and concentration during testing. T. 201-03. Plaintiff could not sustain effort consistently with regard to her cogitative functioning, and she had become somewhat dependant on family and friends. T. 203. Nonetheless, Plaintiff could still take care of her children, do most chores, and perform self-care. Id . Dr. Donofrio concluded that Plaintiff "could be ...


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