United States District Court, W.D. New York
LAW OFFICES OF KENNETH HILLER (KENNETH R. HILLER, ESQ., And JAYA ANN SHURTLIFF, ESQ., of Counsel), Amherst, New York, for Plaintiff.
WILLIAM J. HOCHUL, JR., United States Attorney (MARY CLARE KANE, Assistant United States Attorney, of Counsel), Buffalo, New York, for Defendant.
JOHN T. CURTIN, District Judge.
This matter has been transferred to the undersigned for all further proceedings, by order of Chief United States District Judge William M. Skretny dated April 23, 2015 (Item 19).
Plaintiff Darlene Jones initiated this action on December 13, 2012, pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("the Act"), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Act, respectively. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ( see Items 9, 11). For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.
Plaintiff was born on December 18, 1961 (Tr. 121). She filed applications for SSDI and SSI benefits in May 2009 alleging disability due to bipolar disorder, obesity, anemia, asthma, and epileptic seizures, with an onset date of January 19, 2009 ( id. ). The applications were denied administratively on September 14, 2009 (Tr. 65-79). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on January 19, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Timothy M. Guan (Tr. 39-60). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel. Vocational expert ("VE") Jay Steinbrenner also appeared and testified.
On February 23, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. 12-35). Following the sequential evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Administration regulations governing claims for benefits under Titles II and XVI ( see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920), the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments (identified by the ALJ as asthma, obesity, bipolar disorder, depressive disorder and borderline intellectual functioning), while "severe" within the meaning of the Act and considered alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings") (Tr. 18-22). The ALJ discussed the evidence in the record regarding the functional limitations caused by plaintiff's impairments, including the objective medical evidence and plaintiff's testimony and written statements about her symptoms, and determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at the "light" exertional level with certain non-exertional limitations, including the ability to only occasionally understand, remember and carry out complex and detailed tasks; the need to avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, dust, and odors; and the ability to only occasionally interact with the public (Tr. 22-27). Relying on the VE's testimony indicating that an individual of plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, with similar RFC and limitations, would be able to perform the physical and mental demands of plaintiff's past relevant work as an electronics assembler and lobby attendant, and alternatively, would be capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, and using Rule 202.20 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2 (the "Grids") as a framework for decision-making, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time since the alleged onset date (Tr. 28-29).
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on October 26, 2012, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3), and this action followed.
In her motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's determination should be reversed because the ALJ (1) failed to properly assess plaintiff's mental and physical RFC; (2) failed to properly assess plaintiff's ability to perform her past relevant work; (3) improperly relied upon the VE's testimony; and (4) failed to properly assess plaintiff's credibility. See Items 11-1, 14, 18. The government contends that the Commissioner's determination should be affirmed because the ALJ's decision was made in accordance with the pertinent legal standards and is based on substantial evidence. See Items 9, 17.
I. Scope of Judicial Review
The Social Security Act provides that, upon district court review of the Commissioner's decision, "[t]he findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is defined as evidence which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938), quoted in Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999). The substantial evidence test applies not only to findings on basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from the facts. Giannasca v. Astrue, 2011 WL 4445141, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2011) (citing Rodriguez v. Califano, 431 F.Supp. 421, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1977)).
Under these standards, the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited, and the reviewing court may not try the case de novo or substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Servs., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012). The court's inquiry is "whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached" by the Commissioner. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982), quoted in Hart v. Colvin, 2014 WL 916747, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 10, 2014).
However, "[b]efore the insulation of the substantial evidence test comes into play, it must first be determined that the facts of a particular case have been evaluated in the light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F.Supp. 1139, 1411 (E.D.Wis. 1976), quoted in Sharbaugh v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575632, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2000); Nunez v. Astrue, 2013 WL 3753421, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 17, 2013) (citing Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773). "Failure to apply the correct legal standard constitutes reversible error, including, in certain circumstances, failure to adhere to the applicable regulations." Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). Thus, the Commissioner's determination cannot be upheld when it is based on an erroneous view of the law, or misapplication of the regulations, that disregards highly probative evidence. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 44 (2d Cir. 1983); see also Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal."), quoted in McKinzie v. Astrue, 2010 WL 276740, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2010).
If the Commissioner's findings are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence, the court must uphold the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive, and where a claim has been denied... the court shall review only the question of conformity with [the] regulations...."); see Kohler, 546 F.3d at 265. "Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [the court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). Even where there is substantial evidence in the record weighing against the Commissioner's findings, the determination will not be disturbed so long as substantial evidence also supports it. See Marquez v. Colvin, 2013 WL 5568718, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 9, 2013) (citing DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998) (upholding the Commissioner's decision where there was substantial evidence for both sides)).
In addition, it is the function of the Commissioner, not the reviewing court, "to resolve evidentiary conflicts and to appraise the credibility of witnesses, including claimant." Carroll v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983); cf. Cichocki v. Astrue, 534 F.Appx. 71, 75 (2d Cir. Sept. 5, 2013). "Genuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, " Veino, 312 F.3d at 588, and the court "must show special deference" to credibility determinations made by the ALJ, "who had the opportunity to observe the witnesses' demeanor" while testifying. Yellow Freight Sys. Inc. v. Reich, 38 F.3d 76, 81 (2d Cir. 1994).
II. Standards for Determining Eligibility for Disability Benefits
To be eligible for SSDI or SSI benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must present proof sufficient to show that she suffers from a 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 12 months..., " 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), and is "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...." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). As indicated above, the regulations set forth a five-step process to be followed when a disability claim comes before an ALJ for evaluation of the claimant's eligibility for benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is not, the ALJ must decide if the claimant has a "severe" impairment, which is an impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted (or may be expected to last) for a continuous period of at least 12 months which "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c); see also §§ 404.1509, 416.909 (duration requirement). If the claimant's impairment is severe and of qualifying duration, the ALJ then determines whether it meets or equals the criteria of an impairment found in the Listings. If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant will be found to be disabled. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth step requires the ALJ to determine if, notwithstanding the impairment, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform his or her past relevant work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant will be found to be not disabled, and the sequential evaluation process comes to an end. Finally, if the claimant is not capable of performing the past relevant work, the fifth step requires that the ALJ determine whether the claimant is capable of performing any work which exists in the national economy, considering the claimant's age, education, past work experience, and RFC. See Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 122 (2d Cir. 2000); Lynch v. Astrue, 2008 WL 3413899, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 8, 2008).
The claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to the first four steps of the analysis. If the claimant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there exists work in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Lynch, 2008 WL 3413899, at *3 (citing Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999)). "In the ordinary case, the Commissioner meets h[er] burden at the fifth step by resorting to the applicable medical vocational guidelines (the grids), ... [which] take into account the claimant's residual functional capacity in conjunction with the claimant's age, education, and work experience." Rosa, 168 F.3d at 78 (internal quotation marks, alterations and citations omitted). If, however, a claimant has non-exertional limitations (which are not accounted for in the grids) that "significantly limit the range of work permitted by his exertional limitations then the grids obviously will not accurately determine disability status...." Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 605 (2d Cir. 1986) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In such cases, "the Commissioner must introduce the testimony of a vocational expert (or other similar evidence) that jobs exist in the national economy which claimant can obtain and perform.'" Rosa, 168 F.3d at 78 (quoting Bapp, 802 F.2d at 603).
III. The ALJ's Disability Determination
In this case, ALJ Guan determined at step one of the sequential evaluation that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 19, 2009, the alleged onset date (Tr. 18). At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments are "severe" as that term is defined in the regulations because they "cause more than minimal functional limitations or significant work-related limitations of function in [plaintiff]'s ability to perform basic work-related activities..." ( id. ).
At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's physical impairments, considered alone or in combination, did not meet or equal the criteria of any of listed impairment as set forth in the regulations then in effect. Relying on the report of consultative examiner Kathleen Kelley, M.D. (Tr. 302-06), the ALJ found that plaintiff's asthma with obesity was ...