United States District Court, W.D. New York
CAROL M. SCHUNK a/k/a CAROL M. DEARBORN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
DECISION and ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Carol M. Schunk, a/k/a Carol M. Dearborn ("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 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. ##25, 27.
On June 18, 2008, Plaintiff filed a DIB application alleging disability beginning August 29, 2007, due to back injury, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and fibromyalgia. T. 143-46, 178. Plaintiff's initial application was denied, and she subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). T. 56-59, 62-63. A video hearing was held before ALJ David S. Pang on September 27, 2010, during which Plaintiff testified and was represented by counsel. The ALJ also heard testimony from a Vocational Expert ("VE"). T. 37-54. Afterward, the ALJ issued a written decision on October 15, 2010, finding that Plaintiff was disabled as of October 5, 2010, but not prior thereto. T. 19-39.
In applying the familiar five-step sequential analysis, as contained in the administrative regulations promulgated by the SSA, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lynch v. Astrue, No. 07-CV-249, 2008 WL 3413899, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 8, 2008) (detailing the five steps), the ALJ found: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of August 29, 2007; (2) she had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, hypertension, adjustment disorder, and pain disorder; (3) her impairments did not meet or equal the Listings set forth at 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and that she retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with a sit/stand option and limitations in climbing, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; (4) she was unable to perform her past relevant work; and (5) prior to October 5, 2010, Plaintiff was able to perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. At step five, the ALJ further found that beginning October 5, 2010 (the date that Plaintiff's age category changed to that of an individual closely approaching advanced age), there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. T. 26-32. He then concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to October 5, 2010. T. 32.
The ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 23, 2011. T. 1-6. This action followed. Dkt.#1.
The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the ALJ's RFC was supported by substantial evidence; the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's credibility; and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to October 5, 2010. Comm'r Mem. (Dkt. #25-1) 17-26. Plaintiff cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the ALJ erred at various of the sequential analysis. Gaughan Decl. (Dkt. #27) 1-6.
For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and the Plaintiff's cross-motion is denied.
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. Treatment Records from the alleged onset date, August 29, 2007, through October 4, 2010.
An MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine taken on September 6, 2007 showed moderate L2-3 and L3-4 disc bulging, mild L4-5 disc bulging, broad-based left foraminal to left posterolateral disc herniation superimposed on disc bulging at L2-3 and mild-tomoderate left L2-3 neural foramen narrowing. T. 287.
At the time of her DIB application, Plaintiff took 8 medications, including hydrocodone, Lyrica, Fentanyl patches, Xanax, a beta-blocker, and a diuretic. T. 182, 310.
Beginning September 5, 2007, and various times thereafter, Plaintiff's primary care physician Pricilla Dale opined that Plaintiff was disabled and unable to ...