United States District Court, W.D. New York
DIANE M. JEFFREY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Diane M. Jeffrey, a/k/a Diane M. Bielinski ("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 application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). This Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
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, 10. Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who heard her case is erroneous because it is not supported by substantial evidence contained in the record, or is legally deficient and therefore she is entitled to judgment on the pleadings. Pl. Mem. (Dkt.#9) 18-25. The Commissioner cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the ALJ's decision is correct, is supported by substantial evidence, and was made in accordance with applicable law. Comm'r Mem. (Dkt.#11) 16-25.
Plaintiff protectively filed a DIB application under Title II of the Act on September 14, 2008 due to spinal disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, post-concussion syndrome with visual disorders, right lower extremity neuropathy, right shoulder impairments, and reflex sympathetic dystrophic disorder/complex regional pain syndrome ("RSD/CRPS") caused by injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident. T. 154. Her DIB claim was denied on May 4, 2009, and she subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. T. 68-69. A video hearing was held before ALJ Scott Staller on December 20, 2010. T. 27-49.
In his written decision, the ALJ applied 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).
ALJ Staller found at step one that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity after March 17, 2008. T. 15. At step two, he found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; chronic neck and back pain; vertigo; headaches; carpal tunnel syndrome ("CTS"); and RSD/CRPS. T. 15-16. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the Listings set forth at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1. T. 16-17. 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 perform work at the sedentary level of exertion and could frequently reach, handle, and finger. T. 17-20. At step four, The ALJ obtained the testimony of a Vocational Expert ("VE"), and found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a telemarketer and employment market researcher. T. 20-21. He then concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 21.
Following the ALJ's unfavorable determination, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council on February 4, 2011. T. 7-9. Over one year later, on March 30, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner. T. 1-4. Plaintiff then commenced the instant action. Dkt.#1.
For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's cross-motion is granted.
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. Relevant Medical Evidence
A. Treating Sources
1. Diagnostic Imaging Tests
Plaintiff went to the Mercy Hospital Emergency Room on March 11, 2008, following a car accident. T. 206. There, a CT scan revealed normal results, and x-rays of her lumbar spine showed mild lumbar spondylosis with no evidence of fracture or spondylolisthesis. T. 206-07. Cervical spine x-rays revealed mildcervical spondylosis. T. 207-08.
MRI studies of Plaintiff's brain and cervical spine taken on March 18, 2008, revealed no intracranial hemorrhage or mass effect, normal cervical alignment, and a small disc protrusion at C5-6, which the attending physician characterized as an "unremarkable spinal cord." T. 203, 387. Plaintiff was diagnosed with postconcussion syndrome, and was directed to stay off work until March 22, 2008, and to use Tylenol and Motrin. T. 388.
A lumbar spine MRI dated November 24, 2008 showed moderate L4-5 central spinal stenosis; mild right L4-5 recess stenosis secondary to concentric bulging disc; ligamentous hypertrophy; facet arthropathy; disc dessication; concentric bulging of the disc; annular tears involving the left L5-S1, L3-L4, L2-3, and L1-2 levels; and no evidence of disc herniation. T. 316.
On December 4, 2008, a right shoulder MRI showed rotator cuff tendinopathy, peritendinitis and subacromial bursitis, without evidence of rotator cuff tendon tear; and moderate arthropathic changes involving the AC joint, with associated lateral downsloping type 2 acromion with spur formation anteroinferiorly producing rotator cuff impingement. T. 317.
On July 7, 2009, Plaintiff had a cervical spine MRI. T. 445-46. The impression was unchanged from the prior study that was normal with the exception of C5-6 degenerative change with canal and foraminal stenosis. T. 446.
An EMG study conducted on July 24, 2009, revealed findings consistent with mild right C5-6 radiculopathy, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome moderate on the right, and mild right lower extremity sensory neuropathy, with no evidence of peripheral neuropathy. T. 441.
2. Gosy and Associates Pain Treatment
On April 7, 2008, a physical examination of Plaintiff yielded unremarkable clinical findings. T. 286. Straight leg raise tests were negative. Plaintiff had full strength throughout with no atrophy. Medications were continued. T. 286. Findings remained unchanged through October, 2008, and medications were ...