United States District Court, W.D. New York
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Bonnie Ornelas-Sanchez ("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 Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). This Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). 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. ##7, 9.
On September 24, 2008, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB alleging that she was disabled beginning August 26, 2007 due to anxiety and depression. T. 48-49, 82-89. Her application was initially denied, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). T. 22-23. Plaintiff appeared without counsel and testified at a hearing held on January 13, 2011 before ALJ Stanley A. Moskal, Jr., in Buffalo, New York. A written decision was issued on September 13, 2011, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 11-17.
In applying the familiar five-step sequential analysis, as contained in the administrative regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"),  the ALJ found:
(1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 26, 2007; (2) her severe impairments were "mental health problems to include anxiety and depression and a history of substance abuse and alcohol abuse in alleged remission;" (3) Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the Listings set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the nonexertional limitations of simple repetitive work in a low-contact setting; and (4) Plaintiff could return to her past relevant work. T. 13-16. As such, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 16.
The ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 23, 2012. T. 1-4, 6-7. Plaintiff then filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Dkt.#1.
In the present motion, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the ALJ is erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence on the grounds that: (1) The ALJ failed to find mental retardation a severe impairment; (2) the RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence or the applicable legal standards; (3) the credibility determination was not supported by substantial evidence; and (4) the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff not disabled based upon an alleged ability to perform past relevant work as a prep cook. Pl. Mem. (Dkt.#7-1) 1. The Commissioner cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings on grounds that the ALJ's decision is correct and is supported by substantial evidence. Comm'r Mem. (Dkt.#10) 2.
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. Medical Evidence
On January 27, 2009, Plaintiff underwent an Adult Psychiatric Evaluation by Renee Baskin, Ph.D., during which she reported being in counseling on and off since childhood, including psychiatric hospitalization while in foster care. T. 227. Medications were Zoloft and Vitriol. Id . Her symptoms included difficulty falling asleep, dysphoric mood, crying spells, feelings of hopelessness, fatigue/loss of energy, and thoughts of death or suicide. T. 227-28. Anxiety-related symptomology was remarkable for excessive apprehension or worry, restlessness, and muscle tension; thought disorder symptomology was ...