United States District Court, Western District of New York
KARLA S. ADAMS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA United States District Judge
Plaintiff Karla S. Adams ("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 applications 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. ##11, 12.
Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB on May 9, 2009, alleging disability beginning November 1, 2003 due to degenerative discs in her lower back and chronic back pain. T. 140, 143, 156. Her application was initially denied, and a hearing was requested before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). T. 65-66. Plaintiff appeared with counsel before ALJ Bruce R. Mazzarella on January 12, 2011. T. 30-64. A written decision was issued on January 27, 2011, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. T. 16-25.
In applying the familiar five-step sequential analysis, as contained in the administrative regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”),  the ALJ found that (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2003; (2) she suffered from the severe impairment of chronic back pain aggravated by mild obesity; (3) her impairment did not meet or equal the Listings set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to lift/carry 10 pounds occasionally, sit for an 8-hour workday with normal breaks and meals, and stand/walk on an occasional basis for up to 2 hours of an 8-hour workday, with only occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, or climbing stairs; (4) Plaintiff was unable to perform her past work as a Certified Nursing Assistant (“CNA”); and (5) jobs existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, resulting in a finding of no disability. T. 18-24.
The ALJ’s determination became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on July 11, 2012. T. 4-6. Plaintiff then filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Dkt.#1.
The Commissioner 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.#11-1) 15-24. In Plaintiff’s cross-motion, she alleges that the ALJ’s decision 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.#13) 16-24.
For the following reasons, Plaintiff’s motion is denied, and the Commissioner’s 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 May 18, 2001, Plaintiff was treated at St. James Mercy Hospital after injuring her back while lifting a patient at her job as a CNA. T. 208. John Halpenny, M.D., noted tenderness in the mild lumbar area and right buttock. Id. Plaintiff was admitted with acute back strain. T. 209. An x-ray taken on that date was unremarkable. T. 210.
Plaintiff underwent physical therapy sessions from June 15 to July 23, 2001, at Dr. Halpenny’s recommendation. T. 212-14.
On December 4, 2001, an MRI of Plaintiff’s lumbosacral spine revealed mild disc space narrowing at the L4/5 level, mild generalized annular disc bulge causing slight flattening of the thecal sac, and slight central disc protrusion. T. 222.
Dr. David Kung, a neurosurgeon, treated Plaintiff for complaints of lower back pain from June, 2002, through April, 2003. T. 473-80. An L4-L5 discogram, taken on April 11, 2003, showed that the L4-L5 disc ...