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Mitchell v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

June 30, 2015

ROOSEVELT M. MITCHELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, District Judge.

1. Plaintiff Roosevelt M. Mitchell challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled in March 2011, due to neck pain, back pain, and diabetes. Plaintiff contends that his impairments have rendered him unable to work. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to payment of Supplemental Security Income benefits ("SSI") under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on April 5, 2011. His application was denied. At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Robert T. Harvey on June 21, 2012. Plaintiff appeared with counsel at the hearing and testified. ALJ Harvey considered the case de novo. On August 6, 2012, ALJ Harvey found that Plaintiff was not disabled. On March 7, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.

3. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on April 23, 2014, challenging Defendant's final decision. On August 1, 2014 and August 7, 2014, the parties filed Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings (Docket Nos. 6, 7) pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's is denied.

4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). Substantial evidence is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla, " Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971), and is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id . Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

7. This five-step process is detailed below:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. While the claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his physical ability, age, education and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a person having the claimant's qualifications could perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

9. In the present case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his disability (R. at 13); (2) Plaintiff has "severe impairments, " including discogenic cervical spine and cervical radiculopathy, which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities (20 CRF 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)), (R. at 13); (3) Plaintiff does not have a mental or physical impairment, based solely on medical evidence, listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P. Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.92(6), (R. at 13-14); (4) Plaintiff has retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") for light work, with certain limitations;[1] and (5) Plaintiff has the ability to perform past relevant work as a machine operator and janitor. (R. at 18). Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined by the Act, and was not entitled to supplemental security income. (R. at 18).

10. Plaintiff advances three challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, he argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating his residual functional capacity ("RFC") by improperly evaluating the opinion of Donna Miller, D.O., and failing to develop the record. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not rely on substantial evidence in evaluating whether he could perform his past relevant work. Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not fairly or adequately assess his credibility. All three arguments are unpersuasive.

11. Plaintiff's first challenge is that the ALJ erred in evaluating his RFC. He asserts that the ALJ failed to incorporate Dr. Miller's opinion concerning his ability to bend, turn, twist, and reach, with no explanation. Dr. Miller opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitation with respect to repetitive heavy ...


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