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Nasci v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 7, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Comm'r of Soc. Sec., Defendant.

          OFFICE OF PETER M. HOBAICA Counsel for Plaintiff.





         Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Matthew Damien Nasci (“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' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 17, 20.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted and Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.


         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff completed one year of college, completed heavy equipment training, and has past work as a production welder, a heavy equipment operator, a landscape laborer, and a welder. (T. 28, 179.)[1] Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of lower back disc herniation with chronic pain, depression, scars and residuals, lower extremities and left flank pain, and problems with the right wrist and elbow. (T. 24, 177.)

         B. Procedural History

         On October 3, 2012, Plaintiff applied for a period of Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning September 10, 2007. (T. 20.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on January 31, 2013, after which he timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) On April 3, 2014, Plaintiff appeared in a video hearing before the ALJ, Lisa B. Martin. (T. 32-68.) On June 4, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 14-31.) On June 5, 2015, the Appeals Council 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 seven findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 22-30.) First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2012. (T. 22.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff and did not engage in substantial gainful activity from September 10, 2007 (his alleged onset date) to December 31, 2012 (his date last insured). (Id.) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: lower extremity shrapnel injury; lumbar spine disorder associated with grade I spondylolisthesis; hip disorder; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; sleep apnea; and depression. (Id.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (the “Listings”). (T. 22-24.) The ALJ considered Listings 1.00, 4.00, 12.00, and 12.04. (Id.)

         Fifth, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform

a full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), [2]except the claimant requires the opportunity on an hourly basis to change positions for one to two minutes, plus have access to normal work breaks. The claimant must avoid climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolding, and is limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. The claimant is limited to frequent, but not constant, upper extremity handling, finding, and feeling tasks. The claimant must also avoid dangerous work hazards (including unprotected heights and exposed machinery). Because of pain and mental health distractions preventing detailed decision making, the claimant is limited to routine, uninvolved tasks not requiring a fast assembly quota pace.

(T. 24-28.) Sixth, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (T. 28-29.) Seventh, and finally, the ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. (T. 29-30.)

         D. The Parties' Briefings on Their Cross-Motions

         Generally, Plaintiff asserts nine arguments in support of his motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in analyzing the mental opinion of treating psychiatrist Dr. Komareth. (Dkt. No. 17, at 14-17 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in affording less than controlling weight to the physical opinion of treating physician Dr. Padmanabhan, and failing to analyze his findings indicating that Plaintiff had a less than sedentary RFC. (Id. at 17-20.) Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to set forth specific findings supporting her RFC determination that Plaintiff can perform the mental and physical demands of sedentary work. (Id. at 20-22.) Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consider the mental opinion of consultative mental examiner Dr. Loomis. (Id. at 22-23.) Fifth, Plaintiff argues that, in considering whether Plaintiff met the mental Listings, the ALJ failed to consider treating psychiatrist Dr. Komareth's opinion that Plaintiff had marked limitations in social functioning and maintaining concentration. (T. 23-25.)

         Sixth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to find that Plaintiff's obesity and impairments of the legs and knees were severe impairments at step two of the sequential analysis. (Id. at 25-26.) Seventh, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly substituted her own lay opinion for that of a medical professional in determining that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, which was not supported by the medical opinion evidence. (Id. at 26-28.) Eighth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's credibility analysis failed to set forth the required regulatory factors. (Id. at 28-29.) Ninth, and finally, Plaintiff essentially argues that the ALJ's step five determination relied on vocational expert testimony that was based on an incomplete hypothetical. (Id. at 29-30.)

         Generally, Defendant asserts four arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Defendant argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC finding. (Dkt. No. 20, at 6-14 [Def.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly considered the report of Dr. Loomis. (Id. at 14-15.) Third, Defendant argues that the ALJ applied the proper legal standard in evaluating Plaintiff's leg impairments and obesity at step two, and substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that these impairments did not cause limitations beyond those included in the RFC. (Id. at 15-16.) Fourth, and finally, Defendant argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at 16-17.)


         A. Standard of Review

         A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only 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 disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.”); accord, Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979).

         “Substantial evidence” is evidence that amounts to “more than a mere scintilla, ” and has been defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

         “To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.” Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). 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). In other words, this 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).

         B. Standard to Determine Disability

         The Commissioner has established a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Supreme Court has recognized the validity of this sequential evaluation process. Bowyen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287 (1987). The five-step process is as follows:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits his 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 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 has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his ...

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