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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

September 11, 2014

MATTHEW L. BROWN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

Decided September 10, 2014.

Page 181

LAW OFFICES OF KENNETH HILLER (JAYA ANN SHURTLIFF, ESQ., of Counsel), Amherst, New York, for Plaintiff.

WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney (SERGEI ADEN, Special Assistant United States Attorney, of Counsel), Buffalo, New York, for Defendant.


Page 182

JOHN T. CURTIN, United States District Judge.

This matter has been transferred to the undersigned for all further proceedings, by order of Chief United States District Judge William M. Skretny dated April 16, 2014 (Item 15).

Plaintiff Matthew L. Brown initiated this action on June 17, 2013, pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (" the Act" ), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (" Commissioner" ) denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (see

Page 183

Items 8, 11). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and plaintiff's motion is denied.


Plaintiff was born on November 14, 1960 (Tr. 110, 124).[1] He filed an application for SSI on August 31, 2010, alleging disability due to lumbar spine problems with pain radiating into both legs, with an onset date of July 1, 2001 (Tr. 110-13; see also Tr. 34, 57). The application was denied administratively (Tr. 60-67), and plaintiff requested a hearing which was held before Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) David S. Lewandowski on January 17, 2012 (Tr. 25-56). Plaintiff testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel. Vocational Expert (" VE" ) Jay Steinbrenner also testified.

In a decision issued on February 1, 2012, ALJ Lewandowski found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act (Tr. 11-20). Following the sequential evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Administration Regulations (see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920), the ALJ reviewed the medical evidence in the record and determined that although plaintiff's lumbar spine dysfunction constituted a " severe" impairment, it did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the " Listings" ) (Tr. 16-18). The ALJ discussed the testimony and documentary evidence regarding plaintiff's complaints of pain and other symptoms, including treatment notes from several emergency room visits, a consultative internal medicine examination report, and x-rays of the lumbosacral spine, and determined that while plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he had the residual functional capacity (" RFC" ) for a range of light work, as defined in the Regulations,[2] with certain exertional limitations ( id.). Relying on the VE's testimony indicating that an individual of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC with these limitations would be able to perform the requirements of a significant number of jobs existing in the national and local economies (Tr. 18-19), and using Rule 202.10 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2 (the " Grids" ), as a framework for decision-making, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time since August 31, 2010, the filing date (Tr. 19).

The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 23, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-4), and this action followed.

In his motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's determination should be reversed because the ALJ (1) failed to properly

Page 184

assess the credibility of plaintiff's testimony and statements with regard to his complaints of pain; (2) failed to obtain a treating source opinion to support his RFC assessment (3) improperly relied on the VE's testimony; and (4) failed to properly assess RFC by performing a function-by-function analysis of plaintiff's exertional limitations. See Item11-1. The government contends that the Commissioner's determination should be affirmed because the ALJ's decision is based on substantial evidence. See Item 8-1.


I. Scope of Judicial Review

The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioner's decision, " [t]he findings of the Commissioner . . . as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is defined as evidence which " a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938), quoted in Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); see also Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999). The substantial evidence test applies not only to findings on basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from the facts. Giannasca v. Astrue, 2011 WL 4445141, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2011) (citing Rodriguez v. Califano, 431 F.Supp. 421, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1977)).

Under these standards, the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited, and the reviewing court may not try the case de novo or substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Servs., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012). The court's inquiry is " whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached" by the Commissioner. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982), quoted in Hart v. Colvin, 2014 WL 916747, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 10, 2014).

However, " [b]efore the insulation of the substantial evidence test comes into play, it must first be determined that the facts of a particular case have been evaluated in the light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F.Supp. 1139, 1141 (E.D.Wis. 1976), quoted in Sharbaugh v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575632, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. March 20, 2000); Nunez v. Astrue, 2013 WL 3753421, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 16, 2013) (citing Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773). " Failure to apply the correct legal standard constitutes reversible error, including, in certain circumstances, failure to adhere to the applicable regulations." Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). Thus, the Commissioner's determination cannot be upheld when it is based on an erroneous view of the law, or misapplication of the Regulations, that disregards highly probative evidence. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 44 (2d Cir. 1983); see also Joh ...

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