United States District Court, W.D. New York
LAW OFFICES OF KENNETH HILLER (JAYA ANN SHURTLIFF, ESQ., of Counsel), Amherst, New York, for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney (DENNIS J. CANNING, Special Assistant United States Attorney, of Counsel), Buffalo, New York, for Defendant.
JOHN T. CURTIN, District Judge.
This matter has been transferred to the undersigned for all further proceedings, by order of Chief United States District Judge William M. Skretny dated August 6, 2014 (Item 13).
Plaintiff Alicia Gardner initiated this action on July 30, 2013, pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("the Act"), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Act, respectively. Plaintiff has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ( see Item 9). In response, the Commissioner has filed a memorandum of law and cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings ( see Item 11). For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's cross-motion is granted.
Plaintiff was born on January 20, 1967 (Tr. 164). She filed applications for SSDI and SSI with a protective filing date of July 12, 2010, alleging disability due to shoulder injury, knee and hip problems, and a breast mass, with an onset date of October 16, 2007 (Tr. 164-69; 180). The applications were denied administratively on October 5, 2010 (Tr. 52-58). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held by videoconference before administrative law judge ("ALJ") Gerardo Pico on February 21, 2012 (Tr. 127-49). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel. Two Medical Experts ("MEs"), Drs. Ramón Fortuño and Germán Malaret, and Vocational Expert ("VE") Hector Puig, also testified.
On March 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act (Tr. 10-26). Following the sequential evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Administration regulations ( see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920), the ALJ found that plaintiff had "severe" physical impairments (including status post left shoulder surgery, multiple arthralgias, bulging disc, and left hip pain), and "nonsevere" impairments (depression and asthma), but that these impairments, considered alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings") (Tr. 16). The ALJ discussed the medical evidence in the record, including progress notes and opinions from treating medical sources, reports of diagnostic imaging, plaintiff's hearing testimony regarding her complaints of pain and other symptoms, and the hearing testimony of the Medical Experts, and determined that while plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work as a certified nursing assistant, she had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with additional exertional and non-exertional limitations (Tr. 16-17). Relying on the VE's testimony indicating that an individual of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC with these limitations would be able to perform the requirements of a significant number of jobs existing in the national and local economies (Tr. 20-21), and using Rule 202.21 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2 (the "Grids"), as a framework for decision-making, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time since the alleged onset date (Tr. 22).
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on June 4, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6), and this action followed.
In her motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's determination should be reversed because the ALJ failed to discharge his affirmative duty to fully develop the record, and failed to properly assess the credibility of plaintiff's testimony and statements with regard to her complaints of pain. See Items 9-1, 12. The government contends that the Commissioner's determination should be affirmed because the ALJ's decision is based on substantial evidence. See Item 11.
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioners decision, "[t]he findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is defined as evidence which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938), quoted in Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999). The substantial evidence test applies not only to findings on basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from the facts. Giannasca v. Astrue, 2011 WL 4445141, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2011) (citing Rodriguez v. Califano, 431 F.Supp. 421, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1977)).
Under these standards, the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited, and the reviewing court may not try the case de novo or substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Servs., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012). The court's inquiry is "whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached" by the Commissioner. Sample ...