United States District Court, W.D. New York
TRACY D. PIKE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
LAW OFFICES OF KENNETH HILLER, PPLC (IDA M. COMERFORD. Counsel), Amherst, New York, for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney (SUSAN JANE REISS, 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 December 15, 2014 (Item 15).
Plaintiff Tracy Pike initiated this action on March 7, 2014, 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") benefits under Title II of the Act. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ( see Items 11, 13). For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is granted, and the Commissioner's motion is denied.
Plaintiff was born on September 8, 1959 (Tr. 180). He filed an application for SSDI benefits on January 22, 2011, alleging disability due to impairments of the left and right shoulders, with an onset date of December 16, 2010 (Tr. 214). The application was denied administratively on May 13, 2011 (Tr. 60-63). Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held on March 6, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael W. Devlin (Tr. 24-50). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel. A vocational expert ("VE") also appeared and testified.
On June 27, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. 10-18). 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 impairments (bilateral shoulder pain following multiple surgeries, right wrist fusion, and adjustment disorder) while "severe, " did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings") (Tr. 12-13). The ALJ discussed the evidence in the record, including reports from treating and consultative medical sources, and determined that plaintiff was incapable of performing his past relevant work as an electrician (Tr. 16), and has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with several specified exertional limitations (Tr. 13-16). Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and thus has not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time since the alleged onset date through the date of the decision (Tr. 17-18).
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on January 24, 2014, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-5), and this action followed.
In his motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's determination should be reversed because the ALJ erred in his assessment of the medical opinion evidence. See Items 11-1, 14. 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 13-1.
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioner's 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. March 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 ...