United States District Court, N.D. New York
CASSANDRA M. GORMAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Cassandra M. Gorman brought this suit under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying the application for benefits is not supported by substantial evidence and contrary to the applicable legal standards. The Commissioner argues that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and made in accordance with the correct legal standards. Pursuant to Northern District of New York General Order No. 8, the Court proceeds as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI on April 4, 2011, which was denied (Tr. 59-60, 151-57, 164). Plaintiff and her attorney appeared at an administrative hearing held on October 25, 2012, before administrative law judge (ALJ) Richard E. Guida, who denied Plaintiff's claim in a decision dated November 8, 2012 (Tr. 13-30, 32-58). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 30, 2013 (Tr. 1-4). This action followed.
The parties do not dispute the underlying facts of this case. The Court assumes familiarity with these facts and will set forth only those facts material to the parties' arguments.
III. THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 4, 2011 (Tr. 18). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and polysubstance abuse, were "severe" impairments (Tr. 18). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments, although severe, did not meet or equal any of the Listing of Impairments (Listings), set forth at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 19-20). Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and concluded that she retained the ability to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels, and she had the following nonexertional limitations: Plaintiff could perform unskilled work that was limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, involving only simple, work-related decisions and few, if any, workplace changes; and she was limited to only occasional interactions with supervisors, co-workers, and the public (Tr. 20-25). At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had no past relevant work (Tr. 25). At step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform (Tr. 26-27). Thus, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for SSI (Tr. 27).
IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court's review of the Commissioner's determination is limited to two inquiries. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). First, the Court determines whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard. See Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999); Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). Second, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. See Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773; Balsamo, 142 F.3d at 79. A Commissioner's finding will be deemed conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984) ("It is not the function of a reviewing court to determine de novo whether a Plaintiff is disabled. The [Commissioner's] findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are binding.") (citations omitted). In the context of Social Security cases, substantial evidence consists of "more than a mere scintilla" and is measured by "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted). Where the record supports disparate findings and provides adequate support for both the Plaintiff's and the Commissioner's positions, a reviewing court must accept the ALJ's factual determinations. See Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 36 (2d Cir. 1997) (citing Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982)).
The Plaintiff offers five grounds for challenging the ALJ's conclusions. Each is addressed below.
a. Failure to Order Consultative Intelligence Examination
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred because he failed to develop the record. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have ordered a consultive intelligence examination because evidence existed that she had significant cognitive limitations. Therefore, Plaintiff insists, the ALJ's RFC finding is "not an accurate reflection of Plaintiff's limitations." See Plaintiff's Brief (P. Brf.) at 12-13. Plaintiff further ...