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Jones v. Colvn

United States District Court, W.D. New York

August 3, 2015

CAROLYN R. JONES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Represented by counsel, Carolyn R. Jones ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and the matter is remanded solely for calculation and payment of benefits.

II. Background

Plaintiff has suffered from two heart attacks, on November 24, 2006 and February 26, 2012. T.324, 709.[1] Since November 24, 2006, Plaintiff has been diagnosed with, and has received treatment for, coronary artery disease ("CAD"), severe degenerative arthritis of the right knee, asthma (induced, primarily, by cold weather), fibromyalgia, depression, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"). See, e.g., T.505, 701 (CAD), T.412, 414, 416, 418, 420-21, 885, 887, 889 (right knee arthritis), T.41-42, 505 (asthma), T.374 (medications for fibromyalgia), T.369-70 (depression), T.365 (bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome), T.732 (GERD).

On July 2, 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability commencing on November 24, 2006, due to various medical conditions, including CAD, arthritis, fibromyalgia, asthma, and depression. T.188-90. After the application was denied on December 9, 2008, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on December 9, 2009, before administrative law judge Michael W. Devlin ("the ALJ"). T.33-50. Plaintiff testified; however, the ALJ did not call a vocation or other expert. On June 25, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled ("the First Decision"). T.76-86.

Plaintiff filed a brief with the Appeals Council ("the AC"), T.291-300, which found several errors warranting remand of Plaintiff's application to the ALJ. T.92-95. In particular, the AC found that the ALJ had failed to submit a follow-up request to obtain certain records, with which Plaintiff had requested assistance; failed to proffer to Plaintiff or her attorney certain post-hearing medical evidence; failed to complete the record; gave inadequate consideration to Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and did not provide an appropriate rationale with specific references to the record evidence in support of the assessed limitations. T.93-94. The ALJ was directed to obtain testimony from a vocational expert, if such was warranted by the expanded record. T.94.

Plaintiff was afforded a second hearing before the ALJ on September 6, 2012. T.15, 51-71, 142. Plaintiff again testified, as did vocational expert Peter Manzi ("the VE"). On October 17, 2012, the ALJ again found Plaintiff not disabled ("the Second Decision"). T.15-25. The AC denied Plaintiff's second request for review on March 4, 2014, making the Second Decision the Commissioner's final decision. T.5. On May 10, 2014, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff additional time to file a civil action. Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on June 10, 2014.

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. The Court adopts and incorporates by reference herein the undisputed and comprehensive factual recitations contained in the parties' briefs (Dkt. #9-1 at 2-18; Dkt. #10-1 at 2-17). The record evidence will be discussed in further detail as necessary to the resolution of the parties' contentions.

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. Barnhart, 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)). "Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal." Townley, 748 F.2d at 112.

IV. The ALJ's Second Decision

The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation promulgated by the Commissioner for adjudicating SSI claims. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since the application date. At step two, he found that she had the following "severe" medically determinable impairments: arthritis of both knees; arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, status post-myocardial infarction; asthma; depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. T.17. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's non-severe conditions were high blood pressure, high cholesterol, GERD, left hip pain, right shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. T.17. With regard to the allegation of fibromyalgia, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not meet the criteria set forth in Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 12-2p. The ALJ stated, without explanation, that the other nonsevere impairments did not result in more than minimal limitations in her ability to perform work functions and therefore were nonsevere. T.17.

At step three, the ALJ considered several listed impairments (1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint(s)), 3.03 (asthma), 4.02 (chronic heart failure), 12.04 (affective disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety disorders)) and found that Plaintiff did not meet or medically equal any of them. T.18-19. With regard to Listings 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety disorders), the ALJ again found Plaintiff had "mild" limitations in activities of daily living, and "moderate" limitations in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. T.19. The ALJ found no episodes of decompensation, or evidence of a chronic organic mental disorder, or chronic affective disorder causing more than ...

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