United States District Court, N.D. New York
PETER W. ANTONOWICZ, ESQ., OFFICE OF PETER W. ANTONOWICZ, Rome, NY, Counsel for Plaintiff.
TOMASINA DiGRIGOLI, ESQ., Special Assistant United States Attorney, HON. RICHARD S. HARTUNIAN United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York Albany, New York, STEPHEN P. CONTE, ESQ., Chief Counsel, Region II, OFFICE OF GENERAL COUNSEL Social Security Administration New York, New York, Counsel for Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
THÉRÈSE WILEY DANCKS, Magistrate Judge.
This matter was referred to the undersigned for report and recommendation by the Honorable Mae A. D'Agostino, United States District Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Northern District of New York Local Rule 72.3. This case has proceeded in accordance with General Order 18 of this Court which sets forth the procedures to be followed when appealing a denial of Social Security benefits. Both parties have filed briefs. Oral argument was not heard. For the reasons discussed below, it is recommended that the case be remanded for further administrative proceedings consistent herewith.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff is presently 48 years old. (T. at 188.) She holds a Masters in Business Administration. (T. at 43.) She has worked in sales/marketing, and as an accountant, business manager, bartender, and rural route letter carrier. (T. at 45-47.) Plaintiff alleges disability due to anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), personality disorder, mood swings, diabetes, and diabetic neuropathy. (T. at 48-52, 258.)
Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits on January 15, 2012, and January 16, 2012, respectively. (T. at 188-89, 190-197, 234.) The applications were denied on April 6, 2012. (T. at 100; see also T. at 98-107.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (T. at 108.) The hearing was held on November 15, 2012. (T. at 35.) On November 30, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (T. at 16.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 10, 2013. (T. at 1.) Plaintiff commenced this action on August 8, 2013. (Dkt. No. 1.)
II. APPLICABLE LAW
A. Standard for Benefits
To be considered disabled, a plaintiff seeking disability insurance benefits or SSI disability benefits must establish that he or she is "unable 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2006). In addition, the plaintiff's
physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] of such severity that he 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.
Acting pursuant to its statutory rulemaking authority (42 U.S.C. § 405(a) (2012)), the Social Security Administration ("SSA") promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (2012). "If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).
At the first step, the agency will find nondisability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find nondisability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment, " defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.9630(c).
Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25 (footnotes omitted).
The plaintiff-claimant bears the burden of proof regarding the first four steps. Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996)). If the plaintiff-claimant meets his or her burden of proof, the burden shifts to the defendant-Commissioner at the fifth step to prove that the plaintiff-claimant is capable of working. Id.
B. Scope of Review
In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Featherly v. Astrue, 793 F.Supp.2d 627, 630 (W.D.N.Y. 2011) (citations omitted); Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987)). A reviewing court may not affirm an ALJ's decision if it reasonably doubts whether the proper legal standards were applied, even if the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. Johnson, 817 F.2d at 986.
A court's factual review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to the determination of whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). An ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Roat v. Barnhart, 717 F.Supp.2d 241, 248 (N.D.N.Y. 2010); Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984). "Substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). It must be "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence scattered throughout the administrative record. Featherly, 793 F.Supp.2d at 630; Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). "To determine on appeal whether an 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, 859 F.2d at 258 (citations omitted). However, a reviewing court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972); see also Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).
III. THE ALJ'S DECISION
Here, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 6, 2009. (T. at 11.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, anxiety, and PTSD were severe impairments. (T. at 21.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments, although severe, did not individually, or in combination, meet or equal any of the criteria of a section of the Listing of Impairments ("Listings"), set forth at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (T. at 22-23.) Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and concluded that she retained the ability to "perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except no repetitive but frequent manipulative work bilaterally." (T. at 24.) Additionally, the ALJ found Plaintiff "limited to performing work involving no public contact, and work requiring no more than superficial contact with supervisors and co-employees." Id. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. (T. at 26.) The ALJ obtained the ...