United States District Court, W.D. New York
APRIL D. PIATT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
For April D. Piatt, Plaintiff: Elizabeth Ann Haungs, Kenneth R. Hiller, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Law Offices of Kenneth Hiller, Amherst, NY; Justin M. Goldstein, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of Kenneth Hiller, PPLC, Amherst, NY.
For Carolyn W. Colvin Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Kathryn L. Smith, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office, Rochester, NY; Sandra M. Grossfeld, LEAD ATTORNEY, Social Security Administration, New York, NY.
DECISION AND ORDER
ELIZABETH A. WOLFORD, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff April D. Piatt (" Plaintiff" ) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), seeking review of the final decision of Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (" the Commissioner" ), denying Plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits. (Dkt. 1). Plaintiff alleges that the decision of Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) Yvette N. Diamond was not supported by substantial evidence in the record and was based on erroneous legal standards.
Presently before the Court are the parties' opposing motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Dkt. 12, 14). For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence in the record and is in accordance with the applicable legal standards. Thus, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Dkt. 14), is granted, and Plaintiffs motion (Dkt. 12) is denied. Plaintiffs complaint is dismissed with prejudice.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On December 8, 2010, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits. (Administrative Transcript (hereinafter " Tr." ) 168-78). In her application, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of December 31, 1994. (Tr. 172). Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to December 8, 2010. (Tr. 22). Plaintiff alleged the following disabilities: depression, anxiety, and back problems. (Tr. 172). On March 16, 2011, the Commissioner denied Plaintiffs application. (Tr. 82). Plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (Tr. 86-87).
On May 29, 2012, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a video hearing before ALJ Diamond. (Tr. 21-51). Vocational Expert (" VE" ) Tania J. Shullo also appeared and testified. (Tr. 52-58). On June 8, 2012, the ALJ issued a finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. 1-1 at 513).
On June 21, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Dkt. 1-2 at 2-5). On August 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed this civil action appealing the final decision of the Commissioner. (Dkt. 1).
B. The Non-Medical Evidence
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was a 41 year old female educated through the tenth grade. (Tr. 26-27). Plaintiff had previous work experience as a book binder, cashier, and nurse's aide. (Tr. 28, 173).
1. Plaintiffs Testimony
Plaintiff testified that she has three children, and lived with her nineteen year old son in a two-floor apartment. (Tr. 25-26). Plaintiff received food stamps and rent subsidy assistance from the state. (Tr. 27-28). She last worked as a bookbinder approximately fifteen years before the hearing. (Tr. 28). She stopped working as a bookbinder because " it was too much" for her back to stand all day. ( Id.). Plaintiff testified that she did not search for another job at that time because she was in a relationship and was taken care of by her significant other. ( Id.).
Plaintiff stated that she was unable to work because of her hands, back, and the fact that she was " not good with crowds or lots of people." (Tr. 29). She could walk for one to two blocks before needing to take a break. (Tr. 45). She could stand for about 15 minutes before needing to sit. ( Id.). Her left hand caused her more pain than her right, but both of her hands would go " numb" and cause her to drop things. (Tr. 46). She stated that she could stay on task for about ten minutes, but could sit and watch a thirty minute television show. (Tr. 49).
Plaintiff testified that she was taking Ibuprofen for her back pain, and had not seen a specialist for her back pain. (Tr. 30, 33). She saw her primary care physician every six months, her psychiatrist every three months, and her therapist every other week. (Tr. 2931). Plaintiff indicated that she was on psychotropic medications for her depression. (Tr. 30). Plaintiff stated that her medication made her drowsy, and made it difficult for her to get going in the morning. (Tr. 38-39). Although her medical records indicated prior cocaine and marijuana use, Plaintiff testified that she no longer used these substances. (Tr. 33).
Plaintiff testified that she had three young grandchildren and that she enjoyed spending time with them, but that she was limited because she was unable to pick them up. (Tr. 35).
Plaintiff stated that she had a hard time being around people who were not her family or friends because she was " not a people person" and would stay to herself most of the time. (Tr. 43). Plaintiff indicated that she spent most of her days lying on the couch to alleviate her back pain. (Tr. 42). Plaintiff testified that she cried a lot and would eat or pray to cope with her feelings. (Tr. 43-44).
Plaintiff stated that she was able to cook, clean, and go grocery shopping, but that her son did the vacuuming and dusting. (Tr. 36). She would occasionally ride the bus or take a ride from a relative to get to the store or to religious services. (Tr. 37-38).
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ presented VE Shullo with a series of hypothetical questions. (Tr. 52-58). First, the VE was asked to consider someone of Plaintiffs age, education, and experience who had no exertional limitations and could:
perform simple and complex tasks, low stressed work defined as occasional decision making and occasional changes in work setting and occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public.
The VE testified that a hypothetical individual with these abilities and restrictions would be able to perform occupations that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, including machine feeder, hand packager, and sorter. (Tr. 52-53).
The ALJ then asked the VE to consider the additional limitations of a person limited to simple, routine tasks, unable to work at a production rate pace that could have no in-person contact with the public. (Tr. 53). The VE testified that such an individual could perform the same three representative positions. ( Id.).
The ALJ asked the VE to determine whether there were any jobs in the national economy for an individual who was further limited insofar as the individual could stand for six out of eight hours, sit for two out of eight hours, lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, occasionally push or pull, occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ladders. (Tr. 54). The VE determined that such an individual could perform the positions of sorter, cleaner, and machine feeder. ( Id.).
The VE further stated that a person who was additionally limited insofar as he or she could stand or walk four out of eight hours, sit for four out of eight hours, and required a sit/stand option, could perform the jobs of sorter, marker, or small products assembler. (Tr. 55). If this individual could lift less than ten pounds and only do occasional handling with the left non-dominant hand, such an individual could work at the sedentary level as a surveillance system monitor, addresser, or sorter. (Tr. 55-56).
C. Summary of the Medical Evidence
The Court assumes the parties' familiarity with the medical record, which is summarized below.
Pre-admission screening notes dated February 19, 2010, by Charlene Reeves, a mental health counselor from Behavioral Health Network, stated that Plaintiff reported experiencing stress due to the recent death of her mother and living with her daughter. (Tr. 272). Plaintiff reported a history of childhood, domestic, and substance abuse. ( Id.). Plaintiff experienced paranoia and reported getting pain pills from a friend and prescription pain medications on the street. ( Id.). Her affect was flat and her mood showed depression and anxiety. (Tr. 273). Plaintiff reported that she had recently been to the Rochester General Hospital emergency department for feeling " stressed out." (Tr. 272). Plaintiff was well groomed and cooperative, her thought process was organized, her insight and judgment were fair, and her short and long-term memory appeared to be intact. ( Id.). Dr. Reeves diagnosed Plaintiff with adjustment disorder, alcohol and cannabis abuse, and chronic back pain. ( Id.). Plaintiff was assigned to one-on-one therapy with Laura Masceri, LMSW. ( Id.).
On February 25, 2010, Ms. Masceri reported that Plaintiff appeared well groomed with guarded but appropriate behavior, speech, and logical thought processes. (Tr. 221). Plaintiff was fully oriented with memory intact and judgment appropriate. ( Id.). Plaintiffs mood was depressed, and Plaintiff displayed low energy. ( Id.). Plaintiff reported stress due to homelessness, and was having a difficult time coping with her mother's death a year before. ( Id.).
On March 8, 2010, Ms. Masceri noted that Plaintiffs mental status examination was essentially the same. (Tr. 276). Plaintiff reported paranoia, difficulty sleeping, and chronic pain. (Tr. 275). Ms. Masceri indicated that Plaintiff did not have the life skills to manage her symptoms of grief over the death of her mother, and stated that Plaintiff needed to work on her grief process and concrete objectives to assist her with life skills and obtaining employment. (Tr. 276). Ms. Masceri diagnosed Plaintiff with adjustment disorder, with mixed emotional features, alcohol and cannabis abuse, and chronic back pain. (Tr. 277). Plaintiff s prognosis was fair. ( Id.).
On April 6, 2010, Dr. Muhammad Cheema from Genesee Mental Health Center performed a medication check on Plaintiff. (Tr. 223). Plaintiff denied using street drugs or alcohol. ( Id.). Plaintiff appeared alert and fully oriented, although she showed depression and anxiety and reported sleep difficulties. ( Id.). Dr. Cheema recommended a trial of Lexapro and Trazodone for Plaintiffs depressive disorder. ( Id.).
On May 5, 2010, Plaintiff indicated to Ms. Masceri that she was drinking to cope with lack of sleep and feelings of sadness. (Tr. 289). Plaintiff noted that she had attended many funerals in the past year. ( Id.).
Plaintiff reported on May 13, 2010, that she was unable to get her medications filled and had trouble sleeping and managing anxiety. (Tr. 305).
Plaintiff visited Ms. Masceri on May 19, 2010, and appeared anxious, but otherwise normal. (Tr. 293). Plaintiff indicated motivation due to ...