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Jones v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

February 24, 2017

TARA MARIE JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN M. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Law Offices of Steven R. Dolson Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Social Security Administration Office of Regional General Counsel, Region II Attorneys for Defendant.

          OF COUNSEL: STEVEN R. DOLSON, ESQ., ANDREEA L. LECHLEITNER, ESQ.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          CHRISTIAN F. HUMMEL, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tara Marie Jones brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “defendant”) denying her applications for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits. Dkt. No. 1 (“Compl.”).[1] Plaintiff moves for a finding of disability, and the Commissioner cross moves for a judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. Nos. 9, 10. For the following reasons, the determination of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was born on October 10, 1978, was in general education courses in high school, and has a GED. T at 145-49. Plaintiff worked as a breakfast hostess/maid, cafeteria worker, cleaner, and doffer. Id. at 42, 434. Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on January 23, 2013. Id. at 145-50. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 23, 2013. Id. at 167. This application was denied on May 30, 2013. Id. at 48-62, 67-75. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was held on November 27, 2013. T at 79-81, 28-47. On October 15, 2014, ALJ Hortensia Haaversen issued her determination concluding that plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 11-23. Plaintiff's timely request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, making the ALJ's findings the final determination of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-6. Plaintiff commenced this action on April 18, 2016. Compl.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a district court may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 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). 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. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla, " meaning that in the record one can find "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citations omitted)). The substantial evidence standard is "a very deferential standard of review . . . . [This] means once an ALJ finds facts, we can reject [them] only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise." Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). Where there is reasonable doubt as to whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards, the decision should not be affirmed even though the ultimate conclusion reached is arguably supported by substantial evidence. Martone v. Apfel, 70 F.Supp.2d 145, 148 (N.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)). However, if the correct legal standards were applied and the ALJ's finding is supported by supported by substantial evidence, such finding must be sustained, "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (citation omitted).

         B. Determination of Disability

         "Every individual who is under a disability shall be entitled to a disability . . . benefit . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). Disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). A medically-determinable impairment is an affliction that is so severe that it renders an individual unable to continue with his or her previous work or any other employment that may be available to him or her based upon age, education, and work experience. Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Such an impairment must be supported by "medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." Id. § 423(d)(3). Additionally, the severity of the impairment is "based [upon] objective medical facts, diagnoses or medical opinions inferable from [the] facts, subjective complaints of pain or disability, and educational background, age, and work experience." Ventura v. Barnhart, No. 04-CV-9018 (NRB), 2006 WL 399458, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2006) (citing Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1037 (2d Cir. 1983)).

         The Second Circuit employs a five-step analysis, based on 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, to determine whether an individual is entitled to disability benefits:

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

Berry, 675 F.2d at 467 (spacing added). The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proof to establish each of the first four steps. DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1179-80 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467). If the inquiry progresses to the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that the plaintiff is still able to engage ingainful employment somewhere. Id. at 1180 (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467).

         Next, an ALJ is to assess the degree of functional limitation, or the impact the claimant's mental limitations have on her "ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c). The ALJ must assess the plaintiff's degree of functional limitation in four functional areas: (1) "[a]ctivities of daily living, " (2) "social functioning, " (3) "concentration, persistence, and pace, " and (4) "episodes of decompensation." Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ must "rate" the functional degree of limitation in each of these four areas as "[n]one, mild, moderate, marked [or] extreme." Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(4), 416.920a(c)(4). If the ALJ finds the degree of limitation in each of the first three areas to be "mild" or better and identifies no episodes of decompensation, the ALJ "will generally conclude" that the plaintiff's impairment is "not severe." Id. § 404.1520a(d)(1). Where the plaintiff's mental impairment is "severe, " the ALJ must "determine if it meets or is equivalent in severity to a listed mental disorder." Id. § 404.1520a(d)(2). "If yes, then the [plaintiff] is ‘disabled.'" Petrie, 412 F.App'x at 408 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(2)). "In addition, an ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Barringer v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 358 F.Supp.2d 67, 72 (N.D.N.Y. 2005) (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984)). However, a court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. See Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). The Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

         C. ALJ Decision

         Applying the five-step disability sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 23, 2013, the alleged onset date, through January 23, 2013. T at 13. The ALJ found at step two that plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the spine and inflammatory arthritis. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ then concluded that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.97(b) except that she can lift and carry five pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and can stand and walk for six hours in an eight hour work day and sit for six hours in an eight hour work day. The individual would be capable of following and understanding simple instructions and directions or performing simple or complex tasks independently and is able to maintain attention and concentration and a regular schedule as well as learning new tasks. She is able to ...

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