United States District Court, W.D. New York
MICHAEL T. BLOUVET, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
BERNHARDI & LUKASIK PLLC (STEPHEN EDWARD BROOKS, ESQ., of Counsel), West Seneca, New York, for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney, (MARIA PIA FRAGASSI SANTANGELO, 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 10).
Plaintiff Michael T. Blouvet initiated this action on December 13, 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 Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Act, respectively. Plaintiff has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ( see Item 6). For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is denied.
Plaintiff was born on December 13, 1964 (Tr. 110). He filed applications for SSI and SSDI on October 14 and 17, 2011 respectively, alleging disability due to a spinal disorder, with an onset date of September 27, 2011 (Tr. 110-17). These claims were denied administratively on ( see Tr. 48-54). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held by video teleconference on June 6, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Mark Hecht (Tr. 25-39). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel.
On June 14, 2013, ALJ Hecht issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. 12-21). Following the sequential evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Administration regulations ( see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920), the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairment (identified as degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine), while "severe, " did not meet or medically equal the criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings") (Tr. 18). The ALJ discussed the evidence in the record regarding plaintiff's medically determinable impairment-including diagnostic studies, reports and opinions from treating and consultative medical sources, and plaintiff's hearing testimony and statements about the limiting effects of his impairments-and found that the objective evidence in the record did not support plaintiff's allegations of total disability (Tr. 18-19). Based upon his view of the evidence, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of sedentary work with certain specified exertional limitations, precluding him from performing his past relevant work as a farm laborer (Tr. 18-20). Considering plaintiff's age (48 years at the time of the hearing), education (high school), work experience, and RFC (with limitations), and applying Rules 201.18 and 201.19 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2 (the "Grids"), the ALJ determined that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, and therefore he has not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time since the alleged onset date of September 27, 2011 (Tr. 20-21).
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on October 15, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3), and this action followed.
In his motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's determination should be reversed because (1) the ALJ erred at step three of the sequential evaluation in assessing whether plaintiff's impairment met or equaled the criteria of the Listings; (2) the ALJ's assessment of plaintiff's RFC is not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly assess plaintiff's credibility. See Item 6-1. 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 9.
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); 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 Cir. 1983); see also Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal."), quoted in McKinzie v. Astrue, 2010 WL 276740, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2010).
If the Commissioner's findings are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence, the court must uphold the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive, and where a claim has been denied... the court shall review only the question of conformity with [the] regulations...."); see Kohler, 546 F.3d at 265. "Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [the court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). Even where there is substantial evidence in the record weighing against the Commissioner's findings, the determination will not be disturbed so long as substantial evidence also supports it. See Marquez v. Colvin, 2013 WL 5568718, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 9, 2013) (citing DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998) (upholding the Commissioner's decision where there was substantial evidence for both sides)).
In addition, it is the function of the Commissioner, not the reviewing court, "to resolve evidentiary conflicts and to appraise the credibility of witnesses, including claimant." Carroll v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983); cf. Cichocki v. Astrue, 534 F.Appx. 71, 75 (2d Cir. Sept. 5, 2013). "Genuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, " Veino, 312 F.3d at 588, and the court "must show special deference" to credibility determinations made by the ALJ, "who had ...