United States District Court, N.D. New York
ANGEL R. BRITTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DECISION and ORDER
THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff 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
On August 9, 2010, Angel R. Britton ("Plaintiff") protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income. Administrative Transcript ("T") 122-25. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning April 16, 2010 due to bipolar disorder and anxiety. T 131, 135. On November 17, 2010, Plaintiff's claim was initially denied. T 47-52. On December 7, 2010, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). T 57. Her request was granted, and on November 17, 2011, a hearing took place before ALJ David S. Pang. T 13-30. On January 21, 2012, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application. T 33-46. On February 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for a review of the ALJ's decision. T 12. On June 10, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request. T 1-6. 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
The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her application date of August 9, 2010, through the date of the ALJ's decision, January 21, 2012. T 38. The ALJ considered the medical and other evidence of record, and found at step two of the sequential evaluation that Plaintiff had the "severe" impairments of anxiety, depression, and adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct. T 38. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment contained in the Listing of Impairments. T 38-39. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but would need to avoid concentrated use of all heavy moving machinery such as automobiles and forklifts. The claimant would need to avoid all concentrated exposure from all unprotected heights and would be precluded from working in fast-paced production rate environments. The claimant would be able to tolerate only occasional and superficial direct customer service interaction with the public; however, the claimant would [ sic ] the claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and make judgments on simple work related decisions. The claimant is able to interact appropriately with supervisors and coworkers in a routine work setting and respond to the usual work situations and to changes in a routine work setting.
In reaching the RFC determination, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain and functional limitations, but determined that they were not entirely credible. T 39-42.
At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a sandwich maker. T 42. At the fifth step, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's vocational factors of age (younger individual), RFC, and general equivalency diploma (GED), applied the corresponding Medical-Vocational Guideline (Rule) 204.00, and reached the determination that Plaintiff could make an adjustment to other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy within the framework of the Rule. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, § 204.00; Social Security Rulings (SSR) 83-14, 85-15. T 42-43. However, the ALJ found that the full range of work was compromised by Plaintiff's nonexertional limitations. The ALJ considered the testimony of Alana Curtanic, the vocational expert (VE). T 27-29. Ms. Curtanic testified that a hypothetical person with the same age, education, work experience, and RFC as Plaintiff could perform work as a hospital cleaner, laundry worker, and kitchen worker. T 27-29. The VE also testified to the number of these jobs in the national and local economy, which the ALJ found constituted a significant number of jobs in the national economy. T 43; T 27-29. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, and denied her claims for SSI. T 43.
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)).
Plaintiff offers three grounds for challenging the ALJ's conclusions: 1) The ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence; 2) The ALJ erred in failing to make a proper credibility finding; and 3) The ALJ's Step 5 finding is not supported by substantial evidence. Each is addressed below.
a. The ALJ's RFC Finding
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence. In this regard, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions from Dr. Dinello, Nurse Practitioner Catalone, and Dr. Kamin.
1. Opinions from Dr. Dinello and Nurse Practitioner Catalone
On May 6, 2010, Plaintiff underwent a psychiatric consultation with Lakshman Prasad, M.D., of Oswego Hospital, Behavioral Services Division. T 241. Plaintiff reported getting angry and assaultive. T 241. She also indicated that she had a severe temper problem. T 241. Dr. Prasad diagnosed Plaintiff with impulse control disorder, anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. T 241. Plaintiff thereafter treated with Dr. Presad on July 16, 2010, July 23, 2010, and August 5, 2010. Each time, Plaintiff was Plaintiff was diagnosed with impulse control disorder, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder. On July 16, 2010, Plaintiff reported that none of the prescribed medications were helping her. T 189. She indicated that she stopped taking Depakote because "she was having thoughts of killing other people, " and she reported lashing out at others for no reason. T 189. Plaintiff reported feeling nervous, anxious, and angry. T 189. Dr. Prasad discontinued Plaintiff's prescriptions for Depakote, BuSpar, and Pristiq; he prescribed 40mg of Geodon a night and 50mg of Vistaril twice a day. T 189. On July 23, 2010, Plaintiff stated that her attitude had improved and that her anxiety was "a lot better, " although she was "still a little agitated." T 188. On August 5, 2010, Plaintiff reported feeling nervous, and Dr. Prasad observed her to be "visibly jittery." T 187. Plaintiff said she was "afraid that she might get in trouble with probation, " and she felt "overwhelmed with her responsibilities." T 187. Dr. Prasad prescribed 50mg of Vistaril three times a day and 40mg of Geodon every night. T 187.
On August 15, 2010, Plaintiff was admitted as an inpatient at Oswego Hospital, Behavioral Services Division. T 191-93. During that time, Plaintiff saw Vilas Patil, M.D. T 193. It was reported that "[Plaintiff] impulsively took forty Vistaril tablets that had been prescribed. Within a minute of taking the pills she realized what she had done was wrong and told her boyfriend what she had done. The boyfriend had her taken to the emergency room, from where she was medically cleared and admitted to the Inpatient Unit." T 191. Plaintiff reported that "she does poorly when she takes medications, " and medications made her feel more suicidal "and she would much rather not take any medications." T 191. Dr. Patil repeated his assessment from April 2009, which was that "most of [Plaintiff's] problems were related to Personality Disorder, " and he "did not see that she was going to benefit from any medications." T 191. Later in his evaluation report, Dr. Patil repeated: "As I have indicated before, a lot of patient's problems are related to impulsivity and her Personality Disorder. She is not likely to benefit from medication treatment." T 192. Dr. Patil diagnosed Plaintiff with adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct and personality disorder with borderline and antisocial features. T 192. Plaintiff was assigned a GAF score of 50. T 192. Plaintiff was discharged on August 17, 2010. T 191.
On August 19, 2010, Plaintiff met with Patrick McFalls, L.C.S.W., at Oswego Hospital, Behavioral Services Division. T 185-86. Plaintiff reported that she had recently been admitted as an inpatient after experiencing suicidal ideations, which could have been a side effect of her Geodon prescription. T 185. She also indicated that her goal was "to have a better attitude toward life, '" and to stop complaining as much, be less irritated, and yell less. T 185. Plaintiff "acknowledged  struggling with depression and anxiety, " and that her anxiety "[was] routed in being around large groups of people." T 185.
On August 25, 2010, Plaintiff treated with Nurse Catalone for irritability, anger, and depression. T 184. During a mental status examination, it was noted that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety fluctuated up and down, her affect was anxious, and her mood was depressed. T 184. It was noted that Plaintiff's Geodon prescription was discontinued, and Plaintiff was started on 10mg of Abilify and 100mg of Vistaril three times a day. T 184.
On September 16, 2010, Plaintiff treated with Dr. Prasad. T 237. Plaintiff reported that she continued to have bad mood swings and that she would get violent. T 237. Plaintiff's boyfriend, who attended the session with her, reported, "she got up this morning, she was wicked mad at me." T 237. Plaintiff was diagnosed with impulse control disorder, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder. T 237.
On October 13, 2010, Plaintiff treated with Nurse Catalone for irritability, anger, depression, and anxiety. T 236. Plaintiff indicated that her depression and anxiety fluctuated up and down. T 236. Nurse Catalone observed Plaintiff to have an anxious affect. T 236. Nurse Catalone discontinued Plaintiff's Vistaril prescription and started her on 100mg of Neurontin twice a day. T 236. Plaintiff was diagnosed with impulse control disorder, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder. T 236.
On November 3, 2010, Plaintiff treated with Nurse Catalone for irritability, anger, depression, and anxiety. T 233. Plaintiff reported continued problems with irritability, anger, and anxiety. T 233. Additionally, Plaintiff's depression and anxiety were noted to fluctuate up and down. T 233. Nurse Catalone observed Plaintiff's affect to be anxious and mood depressed. T 233. She also had "some irritability and anger." T 233. Nurse Catalone recommended that Plaintiff continue with 10mg of Abilify, 160mg of Trileptal, and 100mg of ...