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Stottlar v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 10, 2017

TONYA A. STOTTLAR, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          IACONIS LAW OFFICE, PLLC Counsel for Plaintiff.

          U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL - REGION II Counsel for Defendant

          PAUL F. IACONIS, ESQ.

          DAVID B. MYERS, ESQ.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          GLENN T. SUDDABY, Chief United States District Judge.

         Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Tonya A. Stottlar, (“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. 28, 33.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied and Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff obtained a certificate of general educational development (GED), and has past work as a cashier and a customer service representative. Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of swollen hands, depression, anxiety, irritable mood, low interest, and passive suicidal ideation.

         B. Procedural History

         i. Plaintiff's Application of January 23, 2008

         On January 23, 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning July 4, 2006. (T. 25, 64.)[1]Plaintiff's application was initially denied on May 30, 2008, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (T. 64.) Subject to informal remand, the application was returned to the State agency level for further development and determination. (Id.) The State agency determined that Plaintiff's claim could not be approved and returned it to the hearing level. (Id.) On January 7, 2010, Plaintiff appeared in a video hearing before the ALJ, Robert E. Gale. (Id.) On June 7, 2010, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 55-77.) On November 13, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 25.) Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a civil action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. (Id.) On August 13, 2014, the District Court denied Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and affirmed the final decision of the Commissioner. Stottlar v. Colvin, 13-cv-0047, 2014 WL 3956628, at *20 (Aug. 13, 2014).

         ii. Plaintiff's Application of July 28, 2011

         On July 28, 2011, Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning June 8, 2010. (T. 25.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on September 22, 2011, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) On March 20, 2013 and August 6, 2013, Plaintiff appeared in hearings before the ALJ, Jennifer Gale Smith. (T. 374-441.) At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to August 4, 2010. (T. 25.) On August 16, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 16-38.) The ALJ's decision noted that, because Plaintiff amended her onset date to August 4, 2010, the ALJ's decision did not disturb the previously adjudicated period discussed above in Part I.B.i. of this Decision and Order. (Id.) On January 20, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 22-24.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         Generally, in her decision, the ALJ made the following six findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 27-38.) First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2011, and did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her amended alleged onset date of August 4, 2010, through her date last insured of March 31, 2011. (T. 27.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's bilateral de Quervain's tenosynovitis, anxiety, and depression were severe impairments, but that Plaintiff's neck and back pain, fibromyalgia, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, pulmonary nodules, and obesity were not severe impairments during the relevant time period. (T. 27-30.) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (the “Listings”). (T. 30-31.) The ALJ considered Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 12.04 (affective disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). (Id.)

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

to lift up to ten pounds continuously, eleven to twenty pounds frequently, and twenty-one to fifty pounds occasionally. The claimant can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday and for two hours at a time without interruption. The claimant can walk for four hours in an eight-hour workday and for two hours at a time without interruption. The claimant can stand for two hours in an eight-hour workday and for two hours without interruption. The claimant can frequently reach, handle, push, and pull. The claimant can frequently operate foot pedals with both feet and can frequently climb stairs and ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch, and balance. The claimant is limited to simple routine, repetitive tasks with occasional interaction with the public and occasional supervision.

(T. 31-36.) Fifth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (T. 36.) Sixth, and finally, the ALJ found that there were other existing jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed through the date last insured. (T. 37-38.)

         D. The Parties' Briefings on Their Cross-Motions

         Generally, Plaintiff asserts eight arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues that the Appeals Council failed to consider her entire letter memorandum accompanying her request for review of the hearing decision. (Dkt. No. 28, at 28-30 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues that the Appeals Council's failure to consider fer entire letter memorandum was a denial of administrative due process. (Id. at 30-32.) Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to develop the record by not recontacting treating psychiatrist Thomas Schwartz, M.D., to explain any inconsistencies between his treatment notes and his opinion of Plaintiff's “marked” mental limitations. (Id. at 32-33.) Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to afford adequate weight to all of Dr. Schwartz's opinions. (Id. at 33-36.) Fifth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the mental opinion of psychiatrist and medical expert Aaron Satloff, M.D. (Id. at 36-38.) Sixth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the physical opinion of orthopedic surgeon and medical expert John Axline, M.D. (Id. at 36-38.) Seventh, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the physical opinion of treating internist Muftah Kadura, M.D. (Id. at 38-40.) Eighth, and finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's credibility. (Id. at 41.)

         Generally, Defendant asserts four arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Defendant argues that the letter memorandum from Plaintiff's counsel is not new and material evidence. (Dkt. No. 33, at 16-17 [Def.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Defendant argues that the ALJ appropriately evaluated Plaintiff's alleged mental impairments. (Id. at 18-22.) Third, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly weighed the evidence regarding Plaintiff's alleged physical limitations. (Id. at 22-24.) Fourth, and finally, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility. (Id. at 24-25.)

         II. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARD

         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. Bowen 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 past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform. Under the cases previously discussed, the claimant bears the burden of the proof as to the first four steps, while the [Commissioner] must prove the final one.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982), accord, McIntyre v. Colvin,758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014). “If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further.” ...


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