United States District Court, W.D. New York
Judith Anne Heagney-O'Hara, Rochester, NY, Kathryn L. Smith, A.U.S.A., United States Attorney's Office, Rochester, NY, for Plaintiff.
Elizabeth Rothstein, S.A.U.S.A. (on brief) Social Security Administration Office of General Counsel, New York, NY, for Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
CHARLES J. SIRAGUSA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Judith Anne Heagney-O'Hara brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, (codified in relevant parts at 42 U.S.C. § 401 et. seq. and 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et. seq. ) claiming that Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") improperly denied her application for benefits under Title II of the Act. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying her disability benefits was erroneous and not supported by the substantial evidence contained in the record, or was contrary to law. She seeks a reversal of that decision. The Commissioner has moved for judgment on the pleadings, seeking affirmation of his determination. Mot. for Judgment on the Pleadings, Oct. 20, 2014, ECF No. 11. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Plaintiff's application is denied.
Procedural History and Factual Background
Plaintiff was born in 1955. R. 106. She completed one year of college in 1974, and has not completed any type of specialized job training, trade, or vocational school. R. 149.
On December 15, 2010, R. 12, Plaintiff protectively filed for Disability benefits under Title II, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI for. R. 108, 113. For both applications, she listed the date on which her disability started as November 26, 2000. Plaintiff's Title II claim was denied initially on March 10, 2011, but on the same date, she was granted SSI benefits. R. 12. Plaintiff pursued a hearing before an ALJ, which hearing was held on August 30, 2012, in Rochester, New York. At the hearing, a Vocational Expert ("VE") testified.
On September 7, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's Title II disability application, finding at the fourth sequential step that she was not disabled, and that she was able to perform her past relevant work as an administrative assistant. As an alternative finding, the ALJ continued to the fifth sequential step, finding that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Plaintiff appealed, but on December 26, 2013, the Appeals Council denied her review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. At oral argument on February 12, 2015, Plaintiff provided to the Court additional written arguments, which are filed as ECF No. 16.
The ALJ's Findings
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the coverage requirements under the Act through March 31, 2003, but not thereafter, and that she had not engaged in any gainful employment since March 9, 2001. R. 14. He determined she suffered from the following severe impairment: fractured humorous of her right (non-dominant) arm. Id. He also determined that despite that severe impairment, Plaintiff did not meet any of the requirements in the Listing of Impairments. R. 15.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except that she was limited to frequent fingering, handling, and reaching. He noted that her fracture took five months to heal, and that Plaintiff related residual problems including difficulty brushing her hair, and lifting her arm, and that she could not do anything in 2003 or 2004 without a great amount of pain. Further, he noted that she informed the ALJ of a motor vehicle accident in 2006, after her date last insured, which she stated exacerbated her symptoms. The ALJ concluded that,
the claimant's medically determinable impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the above residual functional capacity assessment.
R. 15. The ALJ then considered seven factors effecting his credibility assessment of plaintiff. R. 16.
After hearing testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as an administrative assistant, or, in the alternative, could perform the light duty positions of housekeeper cleaner, or counter clerk.
Jurisdiction and Scope of Review
Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Additionally, 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 "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the Court's scope of review to determining whether the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence. See, Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (finding that the reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo). The Court is also authorized to review the legal standards employed by the Commissioner in evaluating the plaintiff's claim.
Plaintiff's Claims of Error
Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, has filed several documents either in support of her appeal, or in opposition to the Commissioner's position. Exhibit (Appeals Council denial), Apr. 3, 2014, ECF No. 4; Judith Anne Heagney-O'Hara letter to the Court, Oct. 1, 2014, ECF No. 10; Pl's Response to Motion, Dec. 1, 2014, ECF No. 13; Exhibits (Linden Oaks letter and physical therapy notes), Dec. 10, 2014, ECF No. 14; and Additional Exhibits (refiling of her November 6, 2014, exhibits to align them with her own copy), Feb. 17, 2015, ECF No. 16. In her complaint, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision to deny benefits was not based upon substantial evidence and that the ALJ committed errors of law. Compl. ¶ 10, Feb. 21, 2014, ECF No. 1. In attempting to ascertain the basis for her claims, the Court has reviewed the documents Plaintiff filed. She spends most of the time discussing what physical therapy she did receive, and how she was denied further physical therapy because of scheduling problems, a lack of steady living arrangements, and a lack of steady transportation. She also submits letters from a friend and rheumatologist, John R. P. Tesser, M.D., F.A.C.P., F.A.C.R., of Arizona Rheumatology Center, Ltd., in Phoenix, Arizona, and complains that the ALJ did not, in essence, consider Dr. Tesser as a treating physician. She states that she was told by her treating orthopedist, Dr. John Gorczya, to wait until the fracture was completely healed before beginning physical therapy. This meant that her arm atrophied during the five months it took to heal, and further, that the bone healed with a deformity. ECF No. 10 at 2. She concludes with this:
There are judgment calls I believe in this case that need considerable thought, which I have mentioned in this ...