United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.
Represented by counsel, Delisa Kai Gee Lauber ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.
II. Procedural Status
On March 19, 2012, Plaintiff protectively filed a DIB application, alleging disability beginning September 15, 2009, based on bipolar disorder, anxiety, hypertension, cluster headaches, low potassium levels, endometriosis, and a thyroid problem. T.110-15, 128. After this application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before administrative law judge Barry E. Ryan ("the ALJ") on November 21, 2012, via videoconference. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. The ALJ did not call a vocational or other expert. On December 18, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. T.7-24, 31-62. On February 14, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. T.1-6. This timely action followed.
III. Scope of Review
When considering a claimant's challenge to the decision of the Commissioner denying benefits under the Social Security Act ("the Act"), the district court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial record evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the proper legal standards. Green-Younger v. Barnhard, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003). The district court must accept the Commissioner's findings of fact, provided that such findings are supported by "substantial evidence" in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (the Commissioner's findings "as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive"). The reviewing court nevertheless must scrutinize the whole record and examine evidence that supports or detracts from both sides. Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). "The deferential standard of review for substantial evidence does not apply to the Commissioner's conclusions of law." Byam v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 172, 179 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984)).
IV. The ALJ's Decision
The ALJ followed the well-established five-step sequential evaluation promulgated by the Commissioner for adjudicating disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 1520.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements for DIB through December 31, 2014. T.12. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2009, the alleged onset date. Id.
At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder and substance abuse disorder were "severe" impairments. The ALJ noted that she was assigned a global assessment of functioning ("GAF") of 45 in November 2011, when she first started seeing a psychiatrist. During that examination, her mood was slightly elevated and her speech was rapid and pressured at times. She was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder on a rule out basis, bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorder, and opiate addiction. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff has had a history of abusing prescription medications and has been hospitalized on multiple occasions for overdosing on her medications, not taking her medications as prescribed, or using alcohol in combination with her medications, thereby causing an adverse drug interaction. The ALJ noted, however, that there is "no indication in the medical records that the... overdoses were suicide attempts or intentional attempts to harm herself." T.13. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's hypertension, low potassium, hypothyroidism, and endometriosis were non-severe impairments, a finding not challenged here. With regard to Plaintiff's allegation of cluster headaches, the ALJ concluded that these were not medically determinable severe impairments, given her normal CT scans in March 2006 and November 2010, and her lack of complaints about headaches to her primary care provider and endocrinologist. T.13. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff specifically denied photophobia to her primary care physician but acted as though the light was bothering her eyes during the consultative physician's examination.
The ALJ then considered whether Plaintiff's severe impairments, singly or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. He specifically considered Listing 12.04 (affective disorders) and Listing 12.09 (bipolar disorders). T.14. With regard to the "Paragraph B" criteria of those listings, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has no restrictions in performing activities of daily living; mild difficulties in social functioning; and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. T.14-15. The ALJ found no episodes of decompensation of extended duration, noting that her hospitalizations for drug overdoses lasted only two to three days, and there is no indication that these were suicide attempts. After her last hospitalization, she was a assigned a GAF of 70, indicating minimal psychiatric symptoms and limitations. T.15. The ALJ also considered the "Paragraph C" criteria, and found that these were not satisfied given, e.g., the lack of evidence that Plaintiff has a residual disease process resulting in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or a change in the environment would be predicted to cause her to decompensate psychiatrically. T.15.
The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to be the full range of work at all exertional levels,  but "due to her mental impairments and substance abuse disorder, " Plaintiff is "unable to perform complex tasks." T.16. However, the ALJ determined, Plaintiff "retains the ability to continuously understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions, perform simple tasks, respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations, and deal with changes in a routine work setting." T.16. The ALJ noted that after her initial appointment with her psychiatrist, Dr. Tinu Addams, in November 2011, she did not return to see him again until May 2012, at which time she gave him disability forms to complete. During the consultative psychological examination in June 2012, Plaintiff's mood was euthymic and her affect was full range and appropriate; her attention, concentration, and recent and remote memory were intact; and her social skills and manner of relating were adequate.
At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to return to her past work as a customer service representative, phlebotomist, or patient registrant at a hospital because the requirements of those jobs exceeded her RFC insofar as she is limited to unskilled work and these positions were semiskilled to skilled work. T.22. Considering Plaintiff's vocational profile, the ALJ noted that she was a "younger" individual within the meaning of the regulations and had completed one year of college plus vocational training to be a medical assistant. T.22. As Plaintiff had only nonexertional limitations, the ALJ relied on Medical-Vocational Guideline 204.00 ("the Grids") and Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-15, which provides that so long as a person can perform the basic mental demands of competitive, remunerative, unskilled work, she is "not disabled". The ALJ found that the evidence established that Plaintiff had "no significant limitations in the performance of [the] basic mental demands of work[, ]" i.e., understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work ...