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Gucinski v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

September 17, 2014

PETER GUCINSKI, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner, of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

DECISION and ORDER

MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Peter Gucinski ("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 his application for 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.##6, 12. Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who heard his case was erroneous because it was not supported by substantial evidence contained in the record, or was legally deficient and therefore he is entitled to judgment on the pleadings. Pl. Mem. (Dkt.#7) 3-13. The Commissioner cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the ALJ's decision was correct, was supported by substantial evidence, and was made in accordance with applicable law. Comm'r Mem. (Dkt.#13) 9-20.

BACKGROUND

On January 21, 2005, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB alleging disability beginning in October, 2003, due to knee and back conditions caused by a motor vehicle accident. T. 81, 336-58.[2] Plaintiff's application was initially denied, and a hearing was requested. On April 17, 2008, ALJ Nancy Lee Gregg issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 12-31. In July, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's determination became the Commissioner's final decision. T. 4-6, 7-11.

A civil action in this Court was filed on September 30, 2008 (08-cv-0726WMS). T. 382-86. By Stipulation and Order this Court remanded Plaintiff's claims back to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Gucinski v. Astrue, 08-cv-0726WMS, Dkt.##6, 8. On May 4, 2009, the Appeals Council effectuated the Court's order. T. 382-86.

Following the remand, a hearing was held on April 9, 2010, wherein Plaintiff appeared with his attorney before ALJ Gregg. Vocational Expert ("VE") Timothy P. Janikowski, Ph.D., also testified. T. 530-33.

In applying the 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 engaged in substantial gainful activity from June to September, 2006, and continuously since January 1, 2007. T. 342. Plaintiff's counsel requested a closed period of disability with a trial work period beginning April 7, 2006, through February 1, 2007.[3] The ALJ proceeded through the sequential evaluation process to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled and entitled to a trial work period. T. 342.

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild degenerative changes and compression deformity (possibly old) at T8 and T9 (or D8/D9); disc degeneration with minimal annular bulge but no disc herniation at L3-4; disc dessication from T7-8 to T11-12 with slight annular bulging at each level and degenerative changes with Schmorl's nodes within the endplates, but no disc herniation or nerve root or spinal cord compression; and degenerative changes of both knees, with an antierior cruciate ligament ("ACL") tear of the left knee. T. 342. Plaintiff also had a fracture of the left fifth and sixth anterior ribs; pulmonary contusion/atelectasis and small subcutaneous emphysema along the left lateral chest wall; a Grade II liver laceration and Grade I splenic laceration; and pulmonary edema/small pneumothorax; all of which were severe but nondurational. T. 342-43. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the non-severe impairments of small disc protrusions at C3-4 and C4-5 and fatty infiltration of the liver. T. 343.

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. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 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") by May 11, 2004 to lift, carry, push, and pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks; and stand and/or walk intermittently for 2 hours total in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. He could frequently balance and occasionally climb and descend stairs and stoop, but could not kneel, crouch, or crawl. T. 349. By May 11, 2004, Plaintiff was was capable of performing other jobs that existed in significant numbers including cashier, bench assembler, and office helper. T. 357.

By November 30, 2004, Plaintiff could stand and/or walk for 6 hours with normal breaks; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; lift, carry, push, and pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for about 6 hours total with normal breaks; frequently balance; and occasionally climb and descend stairs. T. 349. As of this date his impairments had improved, thus increasing the number of jobs available to him, including additional cashier jobs, packing line worker, cleaner/housekeeper, and information clerk. T. 358.

On May 28, 2010, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that during the period from May 11, 2004 through January 31, 2007, Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. T. 358.

Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. T. 330-32. Nearly two years later, the Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction on February 6, 2012, and the ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner. T. 327-29, 330-32. This timely action followed. Dkt.#1.

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 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. ...


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