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Russitano v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

July 23, 2015



THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior District Judge.

Christel Russitano ("Plaintiff") brought this suit under Section 205 (g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Act. Pursuant to Northern District of New York General Order No. 8, the Court proceeds as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.


Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI benefits on October 3, 2011 and October 4, 2011, respectively, alleging disability beginning June 24, 2011, due to hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, and depression. Tr.10. The Agency denied her claim on April 6, 2012 and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on April 13, 2012. Id . Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the video hearing held on December 13, 2012. Tr. 22-47. On January 4, 2013, ALJ Julia D. Gibbs denied Plaintiff's request for Social Security benefits. Tr. 8-18. Plaintiff submitted a timely request for review by the Appeals Council, which was subsequently denied on February 28, 2013. Tr. 1-6. The decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner's final decision in the case. This action followed.

Plaintiff commenced this civil action on April 10, 2014. Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiff also filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis. See Dkt. No. 2. Magistrate Judge Christian F. Hummel granted the motion in an Order dated April 17, 2014. Dkt. No. 4.

Both parties have fully briefed the issues. Dkt. No. 10; Dkt. No. 12. In her brief, Plaintiff argues that ALJ Gibbs' decision was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed properly to consider Plaintiff's Functional Capacity Evaluation ("FCE") in her Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") assessment. See Dkt. No. 10. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ failed to access properly Plaintiff's credibility in making subjective complaints. Id . The Commissioner argues that the Commissioner's findings of fact of were supported by substantial evidence. See Dkt. No. 12.

On June 5, 2015, the Court terminated its referral to Magistrate Judge Hummel and decided to resolve the case directly, without Report and Recommendation. Dkt. No. 13.


Under the Act, "disability" is defined in basically the same way for both DIB and SSI programs. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d) and 1382c(a)(3). An individual is defined as disabled when she is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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, " and "only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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)(1)(a) and 1382c(a)(3)(A); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

In evaluating disability claims, the Commissioner follows a sequential five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. This analysis is recognized as valid by the Supreme Court and has been the proper approach in determining disability. Goodale v. Astrue, 32 F.Supp. 3d 345, 352 (N.D.N.Y 2012); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987).

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If [she] is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits [her] 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 meets or equals the criteria of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider [her] disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience.... Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, [she] has the residual functional capacity to perform [her] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform [her] past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant can perform.

Dean v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86900, *3-4 (N.D.N.Y. July 14, 2011) (quoting Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982)). At the first four steps, the plaintiff bears the burden to establish disability. Id .; Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999). However, when it comes to the final step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id.

In the case at bar, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act after performing the five-step analysis. See Tr. 10-17. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 24, 2011. Tr. 12. Under step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of hypothyroidism, bilateral hand arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Tr. 12-13. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R §§ 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 13. Prior to step four, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's RFC and found that, despite her severe impairments, Plaintiff still possessed the RFC to perform light work as defined in related regulations. Tr. 13-15. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no restrictions with walking or standing; was limited to lift no more than 5 pounds; could not bend, kneel, and squat repetitively; and was precluded from fine finger manipulation, such as zipping, buttoning, and typing. Tr. 13. However, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's RFC was insufficient for her to perform her past relevant work. Tr. 15. The ALJ then proceeded to step five and determined that Plaintiff's RFC, combined with her age, education and work experience, allowed Plaintiff to perform other jobs that existed in significant number in the national economy. Tr. 15-17. The ALJ thereby concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Act and was not qualified for the Social Security benefits she had applied for. Tr. 17.


When reviewing a determination denying disability benefits, the Court may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. Goodale v. Astrue, 32 F.Supp. 3d 345, 351 (N.D.N.Y 2012)(citing 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))(emphasis added).

The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to two inquiries. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). First, the Court determines whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard. See Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999); Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998); Cruz v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 8, 11 (2d Cir. 1990); Shane v. Chater, No. 96-CV-66, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10430, 1997 WL 426203, at *4 (N.D.N.Y. July 16, 1997)(citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)). Second, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. See Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773; Balsamo, 142 F.3d at 79; Cruz, 912 F.2d at 11; Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982). A Commissioner's finding will be deemed conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also, Perez, 77 F.3d at 46; Townley v. Heckler, ...

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