United States District Court, N.D. New York
CAROLINE WILSON, Plaintiff Pro Se.
HEETANO SHAMSOONDAR, ESQ. Special Assistant United States Attorney, HON. RICHARD S. HARTUNIAN United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York, Albany, New York, STEPHEN P. CONTE, ESQ., Chief Counsel, Region II OFFICE OF GENERAL COUNSEL, Social Security Administration New York, New York. Counsel for Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
THÉRÈSE WILEY DANCKS, Magistrate Judge.
This matter was referred to the undersigned for report and recommendation by the Honorable Mae A. D'Agostino, United States District Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Northern District of New York Local Rule 72.3. This case has proceeded in accordance with General Order 18 of this Court which sets forth the procedures to be followed when appealing a denial of Social Security benefits. Both parties have filed briefs. Oral argument was not heard. For the reasons discussed below, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The Plaintiff was born on June 16, 1982. (Administrative Transcript at 117, 192.) Plaintiff completed high school and is able to read and write, but has difficulty with numbers and math. (T. at 43, 57, 61, 198.) She tried college but "flunked out" in one semester. (T. at 45.) She is able to drive but prefers not to drive more than thirty minutes. ( See Dkt. No. 16 at 5; T. at 217.) She has worked as a cook and cleaner in a pizzeria, as a telemarketer, and as a commercial cleaner. (T. at 43, 118.) Plaintiff alleges disability due to multiple strokes, depression, obesity, genetic malformation to chromosome 19, auditory processing problems, severe fatigue, migraines. (T. at 40, 48-49, 197.)
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on January 4, 2011, alleging disability as of July 30, 2002; her last date insured is June 30, 2004. (T. at 13, 38, 117, 192.) The application was initially denied on March 11, 2011. (T. at 66.) Plaintiff requested a hearing which was held on September 18, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Edward I. Pitts, who denied the application in a decision dated October 5, 2012. (T. at 13-21, 31-65.) On December 16, 2013, ALJ Pitts' decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T. at 4-9.) Plaintiff was granted an extension of time to file this action which was commenced on February 4, 2014. (T. at 1-2; Dkt. No. 1.)
II. APPLICABLE LAW
A. Standard for Benefits
To be considered disabled, a plaintiff seeking disability insurance benefits or SSI disability benefits must establish that he or she is "unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2006). In addition, the plaintiff's
physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.
Acting pursuant to its statutory rulemaking authority (42 U.S.C. § 405(a)), the Social Security Administration ("S.S.A.") promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (2013). Under that five-step sequential evaluation process, the decision-maker determines:
(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a "residual functional capacity" assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.
McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014.) "If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).
The plaintiff-claimant bears the burden of proof regarding the first four steps. Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996)). If the plaintiff-claimant meets his or her burden of proof, the burden shifts to the defendant-Commissioner at the fifth step to prove that the plaintiff-claimant is capable of working. Id. (quoting Perry, 77 F.3d at 46).
B. Scope of Review
In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Featherly v. Astrue, 793 F.Supp.2d 627, 630 (W.D.N.Y. 2011) (citations omitted); Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (citation omitted). A reviewing court may not affirm an ALJ's decision if it reasonably doubts whether the proper legal standards were applied, even if the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987).
A court's factual review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to the determination of whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). "An ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Roat v. Barnhart, 717 F.Supp.2d 241, 248 (N.D.N.Y. 2010); see Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984). "Substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion....'" Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). It must be more than a mere scintilla' of evidence scattered throughout the administrative record. Featherly, 793 F.Supp.2d at 630 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). "To determine on appeal whether an ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams, 859 F.2d at 258 (citations omitted). However, a reviewing court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).
III. THE ALJ'S DECISION
The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged disability onset date of July 30, 2002, through the last date insured of June 30, 2004. (T at 15.) The ALJ found at step two of the sequential evaluation that during the period in question Plaintiff had the severe impairment of migraine headaches and a severe cognitive impairment. (T. at 15-16.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments, singularly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment contained in the Listing of Impairments. (T. at 16-18.)
The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, except that Plaintiff should not work at heights and should not work around moving machinery. (T. at 18-20.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff was unable to operate a motor vehicle and she was limited to routine, unskilled work with up to frequent contact with supervisors, coworkers and the general public. Id. At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (T. at 20.) At the fifth step, ALJ Pitts applied the framework of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines to reach the determination that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed during the relevant time period. (T. at 20-21.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time period from July 30, 2002, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2004, the last date insured, and denied her claim for disability insurance benefits. (T. at 21.)
IV. THE PARTIES' CONTENTIONS
Pro se Plaintiff filed a brief listing her medical conditions, but without claiming any specific errors concerning the ALJ's analysis and determination. (Dkt. No. 16.) Plaintiff states she "feel[s] that I deserve the disability benefits [because] I have struggled all my life;" she further notes she needs the disability benefits because she and her husband were "on foreclosure status" and it will relieve stress. Id. at 2, 3, 4. She also notes she is unable to work because she needs to miss work frequently due to "multiple amounts of pain." Id. at 6. Defendant contends that ...