United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, District Judge.
1. Plaintiff Nichole Elizabeth Buck challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since February 1, 2009 due to right ear deafness, scoliosis, bipolar disorder, and bulging discs. Plaintiff contends that her impairments have rendered her unable to work. She therefore asserts that she is entitled to payments of Security Disability Insurance ("SSD") benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits ("SSI") under the Act.
2. On May 3, 2011, Plaintiff submitted an application for SSD and SSI benefits. Her application was denied on July 12, 2011. Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, on August 23, 2011, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Robert C. Dorf through a videoconference with Plaintiff and her attorney, which was held on November 16, 2012. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on November 28, 2012, denied Plaintiff's application for benefits and issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. On February 5, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on March 28, 2014, challenging Defendant's final decision.
3. On September 18, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Docket No. 12). On December 5, 2014, the Government filed a Cross Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Docket No. 17). Plaintiff filed a response on December 24, 2014 (Docket No. 18). This Court took the motions under advisement without oral argument.
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 had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2009, the alleged onset date of disability (R. at 21); (2) Plaintiff had the severe impairments as defined within the Social Security Act: "degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, and major depressive disorder" (R. at 21); (3) Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination that meets or equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) (R. at 21-22); (4) Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity ("RFC") that included the performance of "light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she cannot perform complex tasks, " (R. at 22); and (5) Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a cashier. (R. at 25). Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled or entitled to benefits. (R. at 25).
10. Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's severe impairment of major depressive disorder, resulting in a finding not supported by substantial evidence because: (1) the ALJ failed to account for moderate limitations opined by Dr. Ryan, including his then diagnosis of bipolar disorder, when the ALJ determined Plaintiff's RFC, and (2) the ALJ improperly cut off testimony as to the functional effects of Plaintiff's mental illness on her previous employment, specifically as a cashier.
11. Plaintiff argues the mental portion of the ALJ's RFC finding is not based upon substantial evidence. She argues that, although the ALJ said that he gave "significant weight" to Dr. Ryan's opinion, the ALJ failed to credit the limitations found by Dr. Ryan. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ should have considered whether Plaintiff's bipolar disorder constituted a severe impairment, as well as Dr. Ryan's additional findings including that Plaintiff's ability to relate with others and deal with stress ...