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Crouse v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 10, 2017

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

          Lachman, Gorton Law Firm Social Security Administration, Office of General Counsel Attorneys for Defendant

          PETER A. GORTON, ESQ. ANDREEA L. LECHLEITNER, ESQ. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney


          Christian F. Hummel U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Brenda Dee Crouse (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”). Plaintiff moves for a finding of disability, or, in the alternative, for the matter to be remanded for further proceedings, and the Commissioner cross-moves for a judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. Nos. 10, 11.

         I. Background

         On February 1, 2013, plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., claiming an alleged onset date of July 31, 2010. T.[1] 139-45. The application was denied on April 3, 2013. Id. at 67-73. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held before ALJ Marie Greener on August 7, 2014. Id. at 82-84, 38-66 (transcript of the hearing). In a decision dated November 26, 2014, the ALJ held that plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. Id. at 20-33. Plaintiff filed a timely request for review with the Appeals Council, and on February 2, 2016, the request was denied, thus making the ALJ's findings the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-7. This action followed.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. 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) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         “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. Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Halloran, 362 F.3d at 31.

         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 Civ. 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)) (additional citation omitted).

         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. 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 in gainful employment somewhere. Id. at 1180 (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467).

         C. ALJ Greener's Findings

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at the hearing held on August 7, 2014. T. 38-66. Using the five-step sequential evaluation, ALJ Greener found that plaintiff (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2010, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2010, the date last insured; (2) had the following severe medically-determinable impairments: asthma, allergies, and mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; (3) did not have an impairment, alone or in combination, sufficient to meet the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P of Social Security Regulation Part 404; (4) maintained “the residual functional capacity to lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand for 6 hours out of an 8 hour workday, walk for 6 hours out of an 8 hour workday, and sit for 6 hours out of an 8 hour workday in an indoor, climate-controlled work environment”; and, thus; (5) given her age, education, work experience, and RFC, was capable of engaging in employment which exists in significant numbers in the national economy through the date last insured. Id. at 23-29.

         D. Plaintiff's Contentions

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ (1) failed to assess plaintiff's myofascial pain, mixed connective tissue disease, fatigue, fibromyalgia, cognitive dysfunction, chronic sinus pain, chronic vulvodynia, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and autoimmune disorder as severe impairments; (2) erred in assessing plaintiff's RFC on the basis of bare medical findings, and rejecting all of the medical opinions on the record; and (3) failed to properly assess plaintiff's pain in determining the RFC. See Dkt. No. 10.

         E. Analysis of Plaintiff's Arguments

         1. The ALJ Properly Applied the ...

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