United States District Court, W.D. New York
TEMPLE A. WIEHE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief Judge.
1. Plaintiff Temple A. Wiehe challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision, dated May 2, 2012, wherein the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. She now contends that the determination is not based upon substantial evidence, and reversal is warranted.
2. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 9, 2010, and an application for supplemental security income on August 10, 2010. In both applications she alleged a disability beginning on May 2, 2010. The applications were initially denied on December 16, 2010, and Plaintiff was granted a hearing on that denial. She testified before the ALJ on February 22, 2012. The ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications on May 2, 2012. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 18, 2013, rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed the instant action on May 13, 2013.
3. Plaintiff and the Commissioner each filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. 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).
4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See Grey v. Heckler , 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano , 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). Substantial evidence is that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla, " and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker , 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982), cert denied, 459 U.S. 1212 (1983).
5. To determine whether the 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 on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen , 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan , 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and will not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.
7. This five-step process is detailed below:
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.
Berry v. Schweiker , 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); see also Rosa v. Callahan , 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
8. While the claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the fifth and final step. See Bowen , 482 U.S. at 146 n.5; Ferraris v. Heckler , 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his physical ability, age, education and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a person having the claimant's qualifications could perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460-61, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).
9. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 2, 2010, her asserted onset date (R. 23); (2) Plaintiff's chronic back pain, aggravated by obesity, was a severe impairment (R. 23-25); (3) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a recognized disabling impairment under the regulations (R. 25); (4) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of sedentary work as defined by regulations (R. 25-33); and (5) although she could not perform any of her past relevant work, considering her age, education, experience, and RFC, there were sufficient jobs in the national economy that she could perform. (R. 33-34.)
10. Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ failed to thoroughly discuss or give controlling weight to the opinions of her treating sources. A treating physician's opinion is generally given more weight than that of other reports, and in fact will be given controlling weight if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable [evidence] and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record." Snell v. Apfel , 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir. 1999); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Plaintiff argues that, here, the ALJ ignored the treating physicians' opinions that Plaintiff could not sit or stand for more than 30 minutes at time. (Pl's Mem of Law at 10-13 (citing R. 338, 400, 405, 412, 416).)
Initially, Dr. Gosy never opined or found that Plaintiff had such a limitation. The 30-minute limitation appears in the "subjective" section of the cited reports, along with Plaintiff's other medical history and self-reported complaints. (R. 399-400, 404-05, 411-12, 415-16.) This section is distinct from the listing of objective tests performed by Dr. Gosy or his staff and, more importantly, from the assessments of these treatment providers. (R. 401-02, 406-07, 413-14, 417-18.) Accordingly, as expressly stated by the ALJ, these references reflect the 30-minute limitation "as per Dr. Bergfeld, " who referred Plaintiff to Dr. Gosy. (R. 29; see R. 338, 399, 404, 411, 415.) Treatment notes from Dr. Gosy's office frequently ended with the conclusory assertion that Plaintiff had a 50% temporary impairment. However, a statement ...