United States District Court, W.D. New York
MELISSA M. THOMPSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
DECISION and ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Melissa M. Thompson ("Plaintiff"), who is represented by counsel, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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. ##11, 12.
On July 22, 2008, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB alleging disability beginning June 24, 2008, on the basis of back, neck, and hip injuries. T. 148-55, 163. Those applications were initially denied, and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). T. 46-48, 77-78.
Plaintiff appeared with a non-attorney representative before ALJ Jennifer Whang during a video hearing on October 13, 2010. T. 11-45. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert. T. 37-43. An unfavorable decision was issued on November 20, 2010. T. 49-50.
In applying the familiar five-step sequential analysis, as contained in the administrative regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration, 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 during the period at issue; (2) she had the severe impairments of disc bulges of the cervical spine, obesity, and depressive disorder; (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 perform sedentary work, with the additional limitations of a sit/stand option every 30 minutes; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally using ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and rotating her neck; avoiding hazards and exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, and gases; and performing only simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a low-stress job with occasional direct interaction with others; (4) Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work; and (5) there was other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. T. 52-63.
The ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied her request for review on July 27, 2012. T. 1-3. This action followed. Dkt. #1.
The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings 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.#11-1) 2-24.
Plaintiff has filed a cross-motion on the grounds that: (1) the ALJ did not use the appropriate legal standards in determining Plaintiff's RFC; (2) the credibility assessment was not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the vocational expert testimony cannot provide substantial evidence to support the denial of benefits. Pl. Mem. (Dkt.#12-1) 1-24.
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. Treating Sources and Medical Imaging Tests
Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident on June 24, 2008. X-rays of the spine taken that day revealed no evidence of fracture or dislocation, no significant disc space narrowing, and no evidence of neural foramen encroachment, or cervical ribs. T. 282. The reading physician indicated that there was "slight reversal of the normal cervical curve, " possibly due to muscle spasm. Id.
The following day, Plaintiff was diagnosed with a probable musculoskeletal sprain at UB Family Medicine and was prescribed Flexeril, ice, rest, and no work for two weeks. T. 330-31.
On July 7, 2008, Dr. Conrad Williams of Zenith Medical excused Plaintiff from work through July 29, 2008, for acute injuries sustained in the motor vehicle accident. T. 391.
A magnetic resonance imaging ("MRI") test of Plaintiff's left hip on July 31, 2008, was unremarkable, as was a paraspinal electromyography ("EMG") taken on August 7, 2008. T. 336, 501. A nerve conduction study dated August 14, ...