United States District Court, N.D. New York
TONYA A. STOTTLAR, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
IACONIS LAW OFFICE, PLLC Counsel for Plaintiff.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL -
REGION II Counsel for Defendant
F. IACONIS, ESQ.
B. MYERS, ESQ.
DECISION AND ORDER
T. SUDDABY, Chief United States District Judge.
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.
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.
Plaintiff's Application of January 23, 2008
January 23, 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for
Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income, alleging disability beginning July 4, 2006. (T. 25,
64.)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,
Plaintiff's Application of July 28, 2011
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.
The ALJ's Decision
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).
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.)
The Parties' Briefings on Their Cross-Motions
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.)
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
RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARD
Standard of Review
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.
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).
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).
Standard to Determine Disability
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
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.” ...