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Rzepka v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

May 5, 2015

THOMAS RZEPKA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

FRANK P. GERACI, Jr., Chief District Judge.

Thomas Rzepka ("Rzepka") brings this action pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") which denied his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). ECF No. 1. This Court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

Currently before the Court is the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. ECF No. 7. Despite having ample time to do so, Rzepka has not responded to or otherwise opposed the Commissioner's Motion. For the reasons set forth below, I find that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, the Commissioner's final decision will be affirmed.

BACKGROUND

Rzepka first applied for SSI on May 4, 2011 (Tr.[1] 34-39), and also filed applications for DIB and SSI on July 11, 2011 (Tr. 27-33), alleging that he had been disabled within the meaning of the Act since June 15, 2006. After his application was initially denied at the administrative level, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Michael W. Devlin ("the ALJ") on May 24, 2012. Tr. 47-73. Rzepka testified at this hearing, where he was represented by counsel. Id. On August 9, 2012, the ALJ issued his decision, finding that Rzepka was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 10-26. That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Rzepka's request for review on September 18, 2013. Tr. 1-4. Rzepka timely commenced this action on November 22, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. ECF No. 1.

DISCUSSION

"In reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard." Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Indeed, the Act holds that a decision by the Commissioner is "conclusive" if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Moran v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 108, 112 (2d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). It is not this Court's function to "determine de novo whether [the claimant] is disabled." Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Wagner v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990) (holding that review of the Secretary's decision is not de novo and that the Secretary's findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence).

Determination of whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act requires an ALJ to follow a five-step sequential evaluation. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See 20 CFR § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two, and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is "severe" within the meaning of the Act, meaning that they impose significant restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 CFR § 404.1520(c). If they don't, the analysis concludes with a finding of "not disabled." If they do, the ALJ continues to step three.

At step three, the ALJ examines whether a claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. If the impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and meets the durational requirement (20 CFR § 404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, the analysis proceeds to step four, and the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is the ability to perform physical or metal work activities on a sustained basis, notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 CFR § 404.1520(e)-(f). The ALJ then determines whether the claimant's RFC permits him or her to perform the requirements of their past relevant work. If they can, the claimant is not disabled, and if they cannot, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled. To do so, the Commissioner must present evidence to demonstrate that the claimant "retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy" in light of his or her age, education, and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (quotation marks omitted); see also 20 CFR § 404.1560(c).

The ALJ issued a written decision which analyzed Rzepka's claim for benefits, and upon review of that decision and the supporting administrative record, I find that the ALJ's decision is based upon the correct legal standards and his determination that Rzepka is not entitled to benefits is supported by substantial evidence.

In reaching his decision, the ALJ proceeded through the required five step analysis, and determined that Rzepka had the RFC to perform light work, with some denominated restrictions, and that sufficient jobs existed in the economy that would correspond to his RFC. In doing so, the ALJ noted that Rzepka was 51 years old at the time of the hearing, and that he had previously worked at several jobs, including ones involving construction work, cooking, and property maintenance. Tr. 18. The ALJ analyzed Rzepka's testimony, wherein he stated that he suffered from ailments including abdominal pain that radiates to his back and hip, depression, and pain in his hands. Id. Rzepka testified that he is constantly in pain, is unable to concentrate, and feels that it is unsafe for him to drive. Id. However, the ALJ determined that these statements were only partially credible. Id.

The credibility of witnesses, including the claimant, is primarily determined by the ALJ and not the courts. Carroll v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983) (citations omitted). An ALJ may properly accept or reject claims of severe, disabling pain after considering the claimant's subjective testimony, the objective medical evidence, and any other factors deemed relevant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), 416.929(c)(3). The ALJ must follow a two-step process in evaluating the claimant's statements regarding pain:

First, the adjudicator must consider whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s)...that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's pain or other symptoms.
Second, ...the adjudicator must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the individual's symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms limit the ...

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