United States District Court, W.D. New York
ANGELA E. HALL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DECISION and ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Angela E. Hall ("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 Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). 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. ##13, 14.
Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on December 2, 2008, alleging disability beginning May 14, 2007 due to congestive heart failure, depression, bronchitis, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome ("CTS"), anemia sickle cell trait, thyroid problems, and lung problems. T. 40, 212. Her claims were initially denied, and a hearing was requested before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on December 18, 2009. T. 98-104. A video hearing was held on March 9, 2011 before ALJ Scott Staller. T. 61-89. Following the hearing, during which Plaintiff and a Vocational Expert ("VE") testified, the ALJ issued a written decision on March 24, 2011 finding Plaintiff not disabled. T. 40-49.
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 the alleged onset date; (2) she suffered from the severe impairments of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), CTS, hypertension, anemia, congestive heart failure, obesity, depression, and anxiety; (3) her severe impairments did not meet or equal the Listings set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1, and Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with restrictions in reaching, handling, or fingering with both upper extremities; (4) Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a housekeeper and laundry worker because this work was not precluded by her RFC; (5) Plaintiff had not been under a disability from May 14, 2007, through the date of the ALJ's decision. T. 40-49.
The ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 24, 2013. T. 1-4. Plaintiff then filed this timely action. Dkt.#1.
The Commissioner now 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.#13-1) 13-22. Plaintiff's motion 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.#14-1) 4-6.
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
A. Treating Sources
Plaintiff was treated by Dr. Lee Chalupka on July 26, 2007, for rash and right knee swelling with pain. T. 275. Plaintiff complained of ongoing pain for four years, and rated its severity at 9/10. Dr. Chalupka noted Plaintiff's history of pulmonary disease, asthma, migraines, cholecystectomy, and right arm problems. Plaintiff's symptoms were observed to be "mild" in severity, and Plaintiff appeared comfortable, alert, and ambulatory upon examination, despite her complaints of pain. T. 275-77. Her lower extremities appeared normal, with the exception of diffuse tenderness in the left knee, with normal range of motion. T. 277. Dr. Chalupka diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic pain exacerbation and eczema, and prescribed benadryl. Id.
Nearly two years later, Plaintiff was admitted to Mount St. Mary's hospital on April 9, 2009, upon the advice of her primary physician for an evaluation of low hemoglobin. T. 293. Plaintiff was diagnosed with mediastinal and hilar lymphadenopathy (enlargement of the lymph nodes), hepatosplenomegaly (enlargement of liver and spleen), profound anemia, pulmonary hypertension, tricuspid regurgitation, congestive heart failure, ground-glass opacity on chest CAT scan, history of tobacco use, hyperthyroidism, and normal colonoscopy pending biopsies. Id . Upon examination, Plaintiff appeared in no acute distress, yet appeared older than stated age. Neck, heart, neurological, and abdomenal examinations were normal, and an extremities examination showed moderate edema. T. 294. She was advised upon discharge to follow-up with her primary physician and to stop smoking. T. 295.
Plaintiff returned to Mount St. Mary's on April 14, 2009 for severe anemia, sickle cell trait, and mediastinal lymphadenopathy. T. 448. The physical examination was largely normal, however the doctor noted that Plaintiff had thyromegaly (enlargement of thyroid) with multinodular goiter, decreased air entry in the lungs and mild crackles at the back, moderate edema in her extremities, and palpable spleen and liver tip. T. 449. Dr. Yahya S. Hashmi suggested a mediastinal biopsy to rule out any neoplastic disorders, and opined that her severe anemia was likely a combination of chronic disease on the sickle trait. T. 449-50.
On April 21, 2009, Plaintiff saw Dr. Edward Ventresca for pulmonary function testing, which revealed that her forced vital capacity was mildly decreased, and her FEV1 was mildly decreased T. 292. Other pulmonary function tests were normal. Id . Dr. Ventresca diagnosed decreased baseline spirometry with normal lung capacity, suggesting "air trapping as may be seen with asthma, " and moderate reduction in diffusing capacity. Id.
A chest and abdominal x-ray dated May 1, 2009 revealed moderate fecal retention, no evidence of discrete bowel obstruction, and interstitial markings in a manner compatible with pulmonary edema, ...