United States District Court, W.D. New York
DANIEL F. MANNING, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
BERNHARDI & LUKASIK PLLC (SARAH A. FREDRICK, ESQ., of Counsel), West Seneca, New York, for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney (MARY PAT FLEMING, 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 14).
Plaintiff Daniel F. Manning initiated this action on May 10, 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. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ( see Items 7, 8). For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.
Plaintiff was born on October 12, 1963 (Tr. 158). He filed applications for SSDI and SSI benefits with a protective filing date of February 9, 2010, alleging disability due to urological problems, a pinched nerve in the neck and back, and high blood pressure, with an onset date of October 27, 2005 (Tr. 158-63, 164-67). The applications were denied administratively on April 21, 2010 (Tr. 79-87). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on July 7, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Roxanne Fuller (Tr. 53-78). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by non-attorney representative Brian P. Kujawa. Vocational expert ("VE") George Starosta also appeared and testified.
On July 20, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. 34-50). 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's impairments (herniated cervical disc, hypertension, and urethral stricture disease), while "severe, " 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. 39-40). The ALJ discussed the evidence in the record, including reports from treating and consultative medical sources and plaintiff's hearing testimony and statements regarding his complaints of pain and limitations of functioning, and determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with several specified exertional limitations (Tr. 40-44). Relying on the VE's testimony indicating that an individual of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC would be able to perform the physical and mental demands of plaintiff's past relevant work as a gas station attendant, as well as other jobs existing in the national and local economies ( see Tr. 71-74), the ALJ determined that plaintiff has not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time since the alleged onset date (Tr. 45-46).
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on March 13, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3), and this action followed.
In his motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's determination should be reversed because the ALJ (1) failed to properly assess plaintiff's credibility with regard to his testimony and statements about the effect of his urinary incontinence on his ability to perform work-related activities; (2) failed to give controlling weight to the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician in this regard; and (3) improperly relied upon the VE's testimony because it was based upon a hypothetical question that did not fully take into account plaintiff's functional limitations. See Items 8-1, 13. The government contends that the Commissioner's determination should be affirmed because the ALJ's decision was made in accordance with the pertinent legal standards and is based on substantial evidence. See Items 7-1, 11.
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioner's 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 v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982), quoted in Hart v. Colvin, 2014 WL 916747, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 10, 2014).
However, "[b]efore the insulation of the substantial evidence test comes into play, it must first be determined that the facts of a particular case have been evaluated in the light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F.Supp. 1139, 1411 (E.D.Wis. 1976), quoted in Sharbaugh v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575632, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. March 20, 2000); Nunez v. Astrue, 2013 WL 3753421, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 17, 2013) (citing Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773). "Failure to apply the correct legal standard constitutes reversible error, including, in certain circumstances, failure to adhere to the applicable regulations." Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). Thus, the Commissioner's determination cannot be upheld when it is based on an erroneous view of the law, or misapplication of the regulations, that disregards highly probative evidence. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 44 (2d Cir. 1983); see also Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal."), quoted in McKinzie v. Astrue, 2010 WL 276740, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2010).
If the Commissioner's findings are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence, the court must uphold the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive, and where a claim has been denied... the court shall review only the question of conformity with [the] regulations...."); see Kohler, 546 F.3d at 265. "Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [the court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). Even where there is substantial evidence in the record weighing against the Commissioner's findings, the determination will not be disturbed so long as substantial evidence also supports it. See ...