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Snedeker v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

February 12, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


EARL S. HINES, Magistrate Judge.

Scott Snedeker ("Snedeker") seeks review of an adverse decision on his applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act.[1]

I. Judicial Review

A reviewing court's limited role under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether (a) the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and (b) the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Lamay v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507 (2d Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 559 U.S. 962 (2010); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Further, Congress directs reviewing courts to take "due account" of "the rule of prejudicial error." 5 U.S.C. § 706; see also 28 U.S.C. § 2111 (directing that judgments given upon examination of records be "without regard to errors or defects which do not affect the substantial rights of the parties"); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 61 (stating that "the court must disregard all errors and defects that do not affect any party's substantial rights").

II. Background

A. Personal

Snedeker, born in 1967, dropped out of school in the seventh grade. (T. 58-59). Thereafter, he worked for twenty years as a mechanic. (T. 59). In 2006, his hands and elbows began to bother him. (T. 60). He had bilateral carpal tunnel surgery, but could not return to work as a mechanic because his hands painfully cramped when performing fine manipulation. (T. 60-61).

He began working on a dairy farm as a calf raiser/barn cleaner. (T. 61, 235-36). He stopped raising calves because of his hands bothering him, and then began driving farm tractors because that work was a little bit easier. (T. 61-62). In December, 2009, his elbows and shoulder became "worse and worse, " until he could no longer work. (T. 62).

In March, 2010, Snedeker had right shoulder hemiarthroplasty surgery. (T. 62, 313). He returned to tractor work, but, in May 2010, when getting up into a tractor, he felt a sharp pain in his right arm. (T. 63). His right arm and elbow became worse, and then his left arm and elbow started to become painful. (T. 64). He had left shoulder arthroscopy surgery in June 2011. (T. 367).

Snedeker claims he cannot lift his right hand above waist high without trembling in pain, nor carry a gallon of milk without problems. (T. 64-65). If he does "too much" with his arms, both elbows swell and bother him for several days. (T. 67). Snedeker also maintains that his back and legs hurt when he stands or sits too long. "[I]t feels like somebody's sticking a knife into it." ( Id. ). After a half-hour, he has to move around. (T. 67-68). His legs "go numb and hurt." (T. 69). He takes pain medication for his back, antidepressants for his mood, and other medication for diabetes, cholesterol, and hyperlipidemia. (T. 70-72, 76).

Snedeker is obese, standing 5'10" and weighing, at times, as much as 267 pounds. (T. 74-75). He has difficulty sleeping due to pain. (T. 73).

B. Claim

In July, 2010, Snedeker applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits, claiming that he became unable to work as of December 22, 2009, due to "right shoulder replacement, carpal tunnel both hands, arthritis, diabetes, right leg and ankle problems, hypertension, and high cholesterol." (T. 271). Snedeker's claim was assigned to administrative law judge, Elizabeth W. Koennecke ("ALJ Koennecke"), who conducted an evidentiary hearing in December 2011. (T. 55-86). Snedeker, represented by legal counsel, attended and testified. ( Id. ). On May 31, 2012, ALJ Koennecke held a subsequent hearing at which Donald Goldman, M.D., an impartial medical expert, testified telephonically over objection. (T. 28-54).

ALJ Koennecke denied Snedeker's applications in a written decision dated June 13, 2012. (T. 11-22). The Appeals Council denied Snedeker's request for review. (T. 1-6). Snedeker then instituted this proceeding.

III. Commissioner's Decision[2]

ALJ Koennecke first found that Snedeker met the insured-status requirements of the disability insurance benefits program at all relevant times.[3] (T. 14). At Step 2 of sequential evaluation, ALJ Koennecke found that Snedeker has (a) severe impairments of bilateral shoulder and elbow osteoarthritis, (b) nonsevere impairments of low back pain, hypertension, diabetes, and depression, and (c) nonmedically determinable impairments of knee pain, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and/or any impairment related to positive testing for marijuana and opiates. (T. 14-16).

ALJ Koennecke assessed Snedeker's residual functional capacity as follows:

... [T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift, carry, push, and pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He can work with any weight at waist level, but can perform no work above shoulder level. He can perform no reaching behind with his right arm. He has no other manipulative limitations on his ability to reach, handle, finger, and feel. He can perform unlimited sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, stooping, crouching, and crawling. He cannot climb ladders or scaffolds.

(T. 17).

At Step 4, ALJ Koennecke found that Snedeker remains able to perform his past relevant work as a calf raiser as that job was actually performed.[4] (T. 20). ALJ Koennecke made alternative Step 5 findings that other jobs exist in the national economy that Snedeker can perform. ( Id. ). ALJ Koennecke relied on the framework of Medical-Vocational Guidelines, ...

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