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Hopkins v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.

United States District Court, N.D. New York

July 23, 2015

HOLLY E. HOPKINS, Plaintiff,
COMM'R OF SOC. SEC., Defendant.

HOWARD D. OLINSKY, ESQ., OLINSKY LAW GROUP, Syracuse, NY, Counsel for Plaintiff.



GLENN T. SUDDABY, District Judge.

Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Holly E. Hopkins ("Plaintiff") against the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "the Commissioner") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), are the parties' crossmotions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 11, 12.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is granted and Defendant's motion is denied.


A. Factual Background

Plaintiff was born on December 25, 1968. (T. 134.) She received a GED. (T. 150.) Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of shoulder injury, neck injury, and depression. (T. 149.) Her alleged disability onset date is February 1, 2008. (T. 146.) She had previous work experience as a cutter, feeder/packer, housekeeper, and maintenance worker. (T. 150.)

B. Procedural History

On December 30, 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits ("SSD") under Title II of the Social Security Act. (T. 120.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ"). On March 27, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ Marie Greener. (T. 32-54.) On June 18, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 17-31.) On July 16, 2013, the Appeals Council ("AC") denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-7.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.

C. The ALJ's Decision

Generally, in her decision, the ALJ made the following five findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 22-31.) First, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status through March 31, 2013 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2008, her alleged onset date. (T. 22.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of herniated nucleus pulposus, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, status post cervical fusion in the past, and left shoulder injury status post-surgery. ( Id. ) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments located in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix. 1. (T. 23.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "sedentary work, " except, Plaintiff was unable to lift above shoulder level with the left upper extremity.[1] ( Id. ) Fifth, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work; however, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (T. 26.)


A. Plaintiff's Arguments

Plaintiff makes three separate arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Richard Nocella, D.O. (Dkt. No. 11 at 16-19 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's credibility, because she mischaracterized Plaintiff's testimony. ( Id. at 19-22.) Third, and lastly, Plaintiff argues the ALJ's step five determination was unsupported by substantial evidence, because she failed to obtain vocational expert ("VE") testimony, despite the presence of significant non-exertional impairments. ( Id. at 22-25.)

B. Defendant's Arguments

In response, Defendant makes essentially two arguments. First, Defendant argues Plaintiff retained the RFC for sedentary work. (Dkt. No. 12 at 5-11 [Def.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, and lastly, Defendant argues that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. ( Id. at 11-13.)


A. Standard of Review

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) and 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 only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her ...

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