United States District Court, W.D. New York
CLARK JORDAN PEZZINO (MELISSA PEZZINO, ESQ., of Counsel), Buffalo, New York, for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney (BENIL ABRAHAM, 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 October 2, 2014 (Item 14).
Plaintiff Anna Housser initiated this action on November 19, 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 Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Act. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ( see Items 8, 11). For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.
Plaintiff was born on March 13, 1958 (Tr. 46, 153). She protectively filed an application for SSI on March 10, 2010, alleging disability due to knee injury, back injury, and depression, with an onset date of June 14, 2009 (Tr. 153-56, 173). The application was denied administratively on July 9, 2010 (Tr. 71-74). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on June 21, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) William E. Straub (Tr. 41-63). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was accompanied by non-attorney representative Lisa Falkowski.
On July 9, 2012, ALJ Straub issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. 14-26). Following the sequential evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Administration regulations ( see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920), the ALJ found that plaintiff's physical impairments (identified as status post right knee meniscal repair; degenerative disc disease with low back pain and chronic neck pain; and status post trigger finger and cubital tunnel releases; (Tr. 19)), while "severe, " did not meet or medically equal the criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings") (Tr. 21), and that plaintiff's mental impairments (identified as somatoform disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse), considered singly and in combination, were "nonsevere" because they caused no more than minimal limitation in the ability to perform basic mental work activities (Tr. 19-21). The ALJ discussed the evidence in the record regarding plaintiff's medically determinable impairments-including reports and opinions from treating and consultative medical sources, and plaintiff's hearing testimony and statements about the limiting effects of her impairments - and determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, limited to occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling (R. 21-25). Given this functional capacity assessment, and considering plaintiff's statements about the exertional requirements of her former job as a machine operator in a factory, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work (Tr. 25). Considering plaintiff's age (51 years at the time of application), education (at least high school), work experience, and RFC (with limitations), and using Rule 202.13 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 could make a successful adjustment to other work that exists in the national economy, and therefore she has not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time since March 10, 2010, the date her SSI application was protectively filed (Tr. 26).
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on September 30, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3), 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 erred in his assessment of (1) plaintiff's RFC, (2) the severity of plaintiff's mental impairments, and (3) the credibility of her testimony and statements regarding the limiting effects of pain and other symptoms. See Items 8-1, 12. 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 Item 11-1.
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 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. Mar. 20, 2000); see also 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 ...