United States District Court, S.D. New York
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
P. KEVIN CASTEL, District Judge.
Plaintiff Samuel Cancel seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") that he is not eligible for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., or Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. He asserts that the determination of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Act was erroneous, not supported by substantial evidence, and contrary to law.
Cancel and the Commissioner have each moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. (Dkt. Nos. 11, 16.) Because the Court concludes that the ALJ did not discharge his duty fully to develop the medical record before him, both motions are denied and the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further development of the evidence.
Cancel applied to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for DIB and SSI on March 31, 2009, claiming that he was unable to work because of a disabling condition beginning on April 1, 2007. (R. 198-208.) His claim was denied (R. 117-21), and he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 125-26.) A first hearing was held before ALJ Michael Friedman on August 5, 2010, during which Cancel testified and was represented by a non-attorney advocate. (R. 73-88.) In a decision dated August 26, 2010, the ALJ found that Cancel was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 94-107.)
Cancel then requested review of the ALJ's decision by the SSA Appeals Council, and on March 30, 2012, the Appeals Council remanded the claim for further administrative proceedings, directing that the ALJ should further evaluate Cancel's mental impairments and maximum residual functional capacity ("RFC"), and should obtain testimony from a vocational expert. (R. 113-15.) A second hearing before ALJ Friedman was held on August 23, 2012. (R. 45-72.) Cancel, represented by counsel, again testified, as did a vocational expert, Pat Green.
On September 24, 2012, the ALJ issued a twelve-page decision once again finding that Cancel was not disabled. (R. 30-41.) Cancel again sought review by the Appeals Council (R. 26), but the Appeals Council denied review, in a letter dated January 23, 2014. (R. 1-8.) This made the ALJ's ruling the final decision of the Commissioner on Cancel's application. Cancel then filed this action on March 24, 2014, (Dkt. No. 2), and moved for judgment on the pleadings on October 27, 2014. (Dkt. No. 11.) The Commissioner cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings on January 30, 2015. (Dkt. No. 16.)
A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(c), Fed. R. Civ. P., may be granted only if the movant establishes his entitlement to judgment on the pleadings as a matter of law. Burns Int'l Sec. Servs., Inc. v. Int'l Union, United Plant Guard Workers of Am. (UPGWA) & Its Local 537, 47 F.3d 14, 16 (2d Cir. 1995). "Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where material facts are undisputed and where a 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). Under Rule 12(c), the movant bears the burden of establishing "that no material issue of fact remains to be resolved and that [it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Juster Assocs. v. City of Rutland, Vt., 901 F.2d 266, 269 (2d Cir. 1990) (citations omitted) (alteration in original).
In reviewing a denial of benefits, 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 also Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008). A court may not review the Commissioner's decision de novo. See Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012) (citation omitted).
A court's review thus involves two levels of inquiry. Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999). First, the court must review "whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard, " id., including adherence to applicable regulations, see Kohler, 546 F.3d at 265. Second, the court must decide whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773.
An ALJ's "[f]ailure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal." Pollard v. Halter, 377 F.3d 183, 189 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984)). An ALJ's factual findings supported by substantial evidence are "binding" on a district court, but "where an error of law has been made that might have affected the disposition of the case, " the Court cannot simply defer to the ALJ's factual findings. Id.
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 & Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983). "[G]enuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve." Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). In particular, courts must show special deference to an ALJ's credibility determinations because the ALJ had the opportunity to observe the witnesses' demeanor while testifying. Yellow Freight Sys. Inc. v. Reich, 38 F.3d 76, 81 (2d Cir. 1994); see also Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 135 (2d Cir. 1999).
Before deciding whether the Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court must first be satisfied that the claimant received "a full hearing under the Secretary's regulations and in accordance with the beneficent purposes of the Act." Echevarria v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 685 F.2d 751, 755 (2d Cir. 1982) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The ALJ has an affirmative duty to fully and fairly develop an administrative record. Echeverria, 685 F.2d at 755. This duty arises, regardless of whether the claimant is represented by counsel, from the fact that "a hearing on disability benefits is a non-adversarial proceeding...." Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 47 (2d Cir. 1996). "[W]here there are deficiencies in the record, an ALJ is under an affirmative obligation to develop a claimant's medical history even when the claimant is represented by counsel....'" Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 79 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Perez, 77 F.3d at 47). Accordingly, "the reviewing court must make a searching investigation' of the record to ensure that" the ALJ protected the claimant's rights. Robinson v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., ...