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Stoddard v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

May 18, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.


Plaintiff Pamela Stoddard ("Plaintiff"), who is represented by counsel, brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). This Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the Court are the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dkt. ##5, 10.


On October 27, 2009, Plaintiff filed a DIB application alleging disability beginning January 29, 2009 on the basis of a lower back condition, left ankle sprain, depression, and anxiety. T. 94-98, 176-77. Her application was initially denied, and a video hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Scott Staller followed on March 14, 2011. During the hearing the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as from a vocational expert. T. 87-105.

In applying the familiar five-step sequential analysis, as contained in the administrative regulations promulgated by the SSA, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lynch v. Astrue, No. 07-CV-249, 2008 WL 3413899, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 8, 2008) (detailing the five steps), the ALJ found: (1) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity from January 29, 2009, through her date last insured; (2) she had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, left lateral ankle sprain, diabetes, and hypertension; (3) her impairments did not meet or equal the Listings set forth at 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1, and that she retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; make judgments on simple work-related decision; interact appropriately with supervisors and coworkers in a routine work setting; respond to usual situations and changes in a routine work setting; maintain attention and concentration for two-hour segments in an eight-hour period; and complete a normal workweek without excessive interruptions from psychologically or physically based symptoms; (4) Plaintiff had no past relevant work; and (5) there was other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. T. 17-22.

An unfavorable decision was issued on March 23, 2011. T. 12-16. The ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not disabled became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied her request for review on May 2, 2012. T. 1-6. This timely action followed. Dkt. #1.

Plaintiff now moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that: (1) the ALJ erred in finding her mental impairments and morbid obesity non-severe; (3) the RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence; (4) the ALJ's credibility evaluation was not supported by substantial evidence; and (5) the vocational expert testimony cannot provide substantial evidence to support the denial of benefits. Pl. Mem. (Dkt.#5-1) 1-24.

The Commissioner has filed a cross-motion arguing that the ALJ's decision must be affirmed because it was supported by substantial evidence and was based on the application of correct legal standards. Comm'r Mem. (Dkt.#10-1) 2-24.

For the following reasons, the Plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's cross-motion is granted.


I. General Legal Principles

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Section 405(g) provides that the District Court "shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2007). The section directs that when considering such a claim, the Court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); see also Metro. Stevedore Co. v. Rambo, 521 U.S. 121, 149 (1997).

When determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court's task is "to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn." Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59, 62 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). Section 405(g) limits the scope of the Court's review to two inquiries: determining whether the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole, and whether the Commissioner's conclusions are based upon an erroneous legal standard. Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003); see also Mongeur, 722 F.2d at 1038 (finding a reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo).

Under Rule 12(c), judgment on the pleadings may be granted where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988). A party's motion will be dismissed if, after a review of the pleadings, the Court is convinced that the party does not set out factual allegations that are "enough to raise a right to relief beyond the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

II. Medical Evidence

A. Physical

Plaintiff was treated by Dr. David Pfalzer for hypertension, diabetes, and depression from January to August, 2009. T. 260-63. She was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus with suboptimal control; insomnia and depression; hypertension with tolerable control; and morbid obesity. Plaintiff was encouraged to exercise and lose weight. T. 260, 262, 263. On March 5, 2009 Plaintiff had good range of motion in her back and normal neurological examination results. T. 262.

In August, 2009, Plaintiff tripped over a car barrier and caught her left leg, resulting in pain in her left knee and calf which worsened over time. T. 249. She told Dr. Naren Kansal that the pain was the worst at night when she was sleeping and when she was lying down. Id. Dr. Kansal noted that Plaintiff's medical history included diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. Id. Her medications were OxyContin, Diovan, pravastatin, Effexor, trazodone, atenolol, Janumet, aspirin, and Lantus insulin. Id. Upon examination, Plaintiff showed that her spine was non-tender with no paraspinal spasm, "okay" sacroiliac joints, negative lower extremity examination with "perhaps... some weakness of the left extensor hallucis longus and... mild weakness of the dorixflexion of the foot." Reflexes ...

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