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Wright v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

July 29, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Kenneth Renard Wright ("Plaintiff"), represented by counsel, brings this action pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying his 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' motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c).

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on April 25, 2011, alleging disability since June 9, 2009, due to diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, emotional distress, high cholesterol, and respiratory problems. T.189, 205.[1] After Plaintiff's application was denied, he appeared with his attorney at a hearing on June 5, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge Ramon Suris-Femandez ("the ALJ"). T.35-64. Two impartial medical experts and a vocational expert also testified. T.46-63; 143-87. On June 27, 2012, the ALJ issued an adverse decision. T.9-34. The Appeals Council denied review on September 24, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. This action followed.

III. The ALJ's Decision

At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff, who met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2014, had not performed substantial gainful activity during the relevant period (June 9, 2009, through June 27, 2012). T.14. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus II, polyarthritis of the right knee, and depressive disorder, not otherwise specified ("NOS"). T.14, 16. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's alleged respiratory problems did not constitute a severe impairment because the medical records showed no complaints or clinical findings of, e.g., shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing. T.14. Although Plaintiff alleged arthritis in his hands and carpal tunnel syndrome, the ALJ found that the record did not support this. The ALJ declined to find Plaintiff's hypertension and hyperlipidemia to be severe impairments because there was no indication that these conditions had resulted in more than minimal limitations in his ability to perform work-related activities. Also, his high cholesterol was adequately controlled with medication. Finally, although Plaintiff included back pain as one of his disabling impairments, Plaintiff had not reported this impairment at the time he filed his application. Plaintiff's primary care physician, David Stornelli, M.D., consistently diagnosed lumbago or joint pain at multiple sites, but none of Dr. Stornelli's progress notes showed objective musculoskeletal or neurological findings. T.16. Finally, consultative internist Dr. Sirotenko, who provided a detailed report on June 14, 2010, found that Plaintiff's physical examination was completely unremarkable in terms of his lower back. In particular, Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed full flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation; and his lumbar x-rays showed no significant abnormalities. T.16.

The ALJ then considered Plaintiff's medically determinable severe impairments in light the following listed impairments: 12.04 (affective disorders); 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint (i.e., the knee)); and 9.00 (endocrine disorders). At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from an impartial psychiatrist, Dr. Ramon Fortuno; and an impartial internist, Dr. German Malaret. T.46-56. Both Dr. Fortuno and Dr. Malaret testified that Plaintiff's physical and mental impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any listed impairment. T.16-18. With regard to his depressive disorder NOS, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had mild limitations in activities in daily living, no limitations in social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes decompensation. T.16-18. Thus, because his mental impairment did not cause at least two "marked" limitations or one "marked" limitation and "repeated" episodes of decompensation, the "paragraph B" criteria of Listing 12.04 were not met. As to Listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), the ALJ found that although Plaintiff has chronic right knee pain secondary to arthritis with some joint-space narrowing in the medial and lateral compartments, there was no indication of gross anatomical deformity, stiffness, or bony destruction of the joint. The ALJ acknowledged that Plaintiff's gait consistently has been described as antalgic and that he uses a cane, but he found that Plaintiff did not have the severe degree of difficulty ambulating that is required by Listing 1.02.[2]

The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, [3] with certain limitations. T.18. Plaintiff could stand and/or walk for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; could sit for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; could never climb scaffolds, kneel, crouch, crawl, or stoop; and could occasionally climb stairs. Id . The ALJ further found that Plaintiff could perform simple and routine tasks and follow short, simple instructions. Id.

At step four, the ALJ found that given his RFC of less than the full range of light work, Plaintiff could no longer perform his past employment, which included clean-up worker (heavy and unskilled) and security guard (light and semiskilled). T.28.

At step five, based upon both the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and the vocational expert testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform such representative occupations as addresser, document preparer, and telephone-answering/service operator. T.30. Accordingly, the ALJ entered a finding of "not disabled." Id.

V. Standard of Review

Title 42 U.S.C., § 405(g) authorizes district courts "to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." This Court's function is not to determine de novo whether a claimant is disabled, Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 37 (2d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted), but rather to evaluate whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard in making the determination and, if so, whether such determination is supported by substantial evidence in the record. E.g., Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). A deferential standard does not apply to the Commissioner's application of the law, however, and this Court independently must determine if ...

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