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Younes v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 13, 2015

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


EARL S. HINES, Magistrate Judge.

Samantha Isolina Younes ("Younes") seeks review of an adverse decision on her applications for child's and disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income available under the Social Security Act.[1] See 42 U.S.C. § 402(d), 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3).

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). Courts cannot retry factual issues de novo or substitute their interpretations of administrative records for that of the Commissioner when substantial evidence supports the decision. Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). Neither can they overturn administrative rulings because they would have reached a different conclusion had the matter come before them in the first instance. See Campbell v. Astrue, 465 Fed.App'x 4, 5 (2d Cir. 2012) (summary order).

Congress further 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

Younes, born in 1990, attended regular education classes, but dropped out of school in the eleventh grade. (T. 30, 37, 117). She subsequently obtained a GED certificate.[2] (T. 30, 37).

Younes's longest term of employment was for about eight months as a cashier. She stopped working in 2010 after being fired for excessive absenteeism. (T. 30, 161-62). She has not worked since 2010. (T. 161).

Younes smokes cigarettes, and uses "1 bowl pack" of marijuana once a week. (T. 502). During the period between 2005 and 2008, she was arrested on various minor criminal charges including criminal trespassing, petty larceny, and possession of a forged instrument. (Id. ) She performed community service. (Id. ). Her last arrest was for domestic harassment, and those charges were dropped. (Id. ).

B. Claims

In 2010, when Younes was twenty years old, she applied for child's insurance benefits; thereafter, in 2011, she also applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, claiming that she became unable to work as of November 1, 2007, due to anxiety, depression and irritable bowel syndrome ("IBS"). (T. 161). After early administrative denials, she requested an evidentiary hearing, and her claim was assigned to administrative law judge, Thomas Grabeel ("ALJ Grabeel").

ALJ Grabeel conducted an evidentiary hearing in October, 2012. (T. 25-41). Younes, represented by legal counsel, attended and testified. (Id. ). The remaining sources of evidence included medical records, educational records, and medical consultant reports (both examining and nonexamining).

ALJ Grabeel denied Younes's applications in a written decision dated December 6, 2012. (T. 12-20). The Appeals Council denied Younes's request for review. (T. 1-6). Younes then instituted this proceeding.

III. Commissioner's Decision[3]

Initially, ALJ Grabeel found that Younes met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2012, and that she did not engage in "substantial gainful activity"[4] after her alleged onset of disability (even though she worked briefly). Next, ALJ Grabeel found that Younes has severe impairments consisting of irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and anxiety. (T. 15). Third, ALJ Grabeel found that Younes's impairments, singly or in combination, are not so extreme in degree as to be presumptively disabling under the Commissioner's listings of presumptively-disabling mental and physical impairments.[5] (T. 15).

ALJ Grabeel then made a predicate finding of "residual functional capacity."[6] He found that Younes remains physically capable of performing a full range of work at all exertional levels, but her mental impairments create nonexertional limitations that restrict her to performing only "simple unskilled work."[7] (T. 16).

ALJ Grabeel found that Younes has no past relevant work history to contrast with her current residual functional capacity. (T. 19). Hence, ALJ Grabeel proceeded to the final step of sequential evaluation (Step 5) to determine whether there is available work that a person with Younes's residual functional capacity can perform. As an evidentiary basis for that finding, ALJ Grabeel consulted Medical-Vocational Guidelines, commonly referred to as "the grids."[8] (T. 19). He concluded that a finding of "not disabled" was appropriate under the framework of Rule 204.00. (T. 19). Thus, Younes's application was denied. (T. 19-20).

IV. Points of Alleged Error

Younes's brief proffers two "issues" recorded verbatim in the note below.[9] As argued, however, Younes identifies three alleged errors restated in logical analytical sequence as follows:

1. ALJ Grabeel erred in failing to consider Younes's obesity when determining severity of her impairments and residual functional capacity;
2. ALJ Grabeel failed to follow the "treating physician rule;" and
3. ALJ Grabeel failed to afford proper weight to opinions of a consultative examining physician.

V. Obesity (Restated Point 1)

If ALJ Grabeel erred in wholly failing to consider obesity, it is likely that none of his subsequent findings could be deemed as supported by substantial evidence. ...

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