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Bartell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

September 30, 2014


HOWARD D. OLINSKY, ESQ., Olinsky Law Group, Syracuse, NY, for the Plaintiff.

HON. RICHARD S. HARTUNIAN, United States Attorney, SIXTINA FERNANDEZ, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, Syracuse, NY, Steven P. Conte, Regional Chief Counsel, Social Security Administration Office of General Counsel, Region II New York, NY, for the Defendant.


GARY L. SHARPE, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff John Vincent Bartell, Jr. challenges defendant Commissioner of Social Security's denial of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), seeking review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) In a Report and Recommendation (R&R) filed August 20, 2014, Magistrate Judge Earl S. Hines recommended that the Commissioner's decision be reversed. (Dkt. No. 15.) No party has filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons stated below, the court declines to adopt the R&R, and affirms the Commissioner's decision.

II. Background[1]

On November 10, 2010, at the age of twenty-three, Bartell filed an application for SSI under the Social Security Act. (Tr.[2] at 65, 149-54.)[3] After his application was denied, Bartell requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on November 10, 2011. ( Id. at 72-93, 46-63.) On December 12, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying the requested benefits, which became the Commissioner's final determination upon the Social Security Administration Appeals Council's denial of review. ( Id. at 2-7, 29-43.)

Bartell commenced the present action by filing a complaint on July 17, 2013, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's determination. (Compl.) After receiving the parties' briefs, Judge Hines issued an R&R recommending that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded. ( See generally Dkt. No. 15.)

III. Standard of Review

By statute and rule, district courts are authorized to refer social security appeals to magistrate judges for proposed findings and recommendations as to disposition. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A), (B); N.D.N.Y. L.R. 40.1, 72.3(d); General Order No. 18. Before entering final judgment, this court reviews report and recommendation orders in cases it has referred to a magistrate judge. If a party properly objects to a specific element of the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations, this court reviews those findings and recommendations de novo. See Almonte v. N.Y. State Div. of Parole, No. Civ. 904CV484GLS, 2006 WL 149049, at *3, *5 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 18, 2006). In cases where no party has filed an objection, only vague or general objections are made, or a party resubmits the same papers and arguments already considered by the magistrate judge, this court reviews the findings and recommendations of the magistrate judge for clear error. See id. at *4-5.

IV. Discussion

A. Residual Functional Capacity Determination

Bartell first alleges that the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC)[4] determination is unsupported by substantial evidence.[5] According to Bartell, the ALJ failed to: (1) properly analyze the opinion of consultative examiner Stephen Coleman; (2) weigh the opinion of consultative examiner Jeanne Shapiro; and (3) reconcile her RFC findings with the opinion of nonexamining medical consultant R. Altmansberger and the ALJ's own determination that Bartell suffers moderate difficulties in the area of concentration, persistence, or pace. (Dkt. No. 12 at 11-17.) In the R&R, Magistrate Judge Hines found that the ALJ's RFC finding does not conform to and accommodate Bartell's limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. (Dkt. No. 15 at 8-12.) For that reason, Judge Hines recommends reversal and remand. ( Id. at 12.)

An ALJ's evaluation of a claimant's mental impairments must reflect her application of the "special technique" set out in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a, which necessitates consideration of "four broad functional areas" that include: "[a]ctivities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(3). The first three areas are rated on a five-point scale: "[n]one, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme." Id. § 416.920a(c)(4). "[I]f the degree of limitation in each of the first three areas is rated mild' or better, and no episodes of decompensation are identified, then the [ALJ] generally will conclude that the claimant's mental impairment is not severe.'" Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 266 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(1)). If the claimant's mental impairment is deemed severe, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of a mental disorder listed in section 12.00 of the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(d)(2). The mental RFC assessment used at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation process ...

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