United States District Court, N.D. New York
DECISION & ORDER I. INTRODUCTION
J. McAVOY, Senior United States District Judge.
Cobb (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to
§ 205(g) of the Social Security Act (“SSA”),
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final determination by
the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
benefits. Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's
decision must be reversed and the matter remanded because:
(1) the ALJ erred at step two in assessing the severity of
Plaintiff's impairments; (2) the RFC determination is not
supported by substantial evidence; (3) the credibility
determination is not supported by substantial evidence; and
(4) the step five determination is not supported by
substantial evidence. The Commissioner argues that
substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's
decision, and that the Commissioner applied the correct legal
to Northern District of New York General Order No. 8, the
Court proceeds as if both parties had accompanied their
briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings. For the
reasons that follow, Plaintiff's motion is granted in
part and denied in part, Defendant's motion is denied,
and the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and the
matter remanded for further determination consistent with
August 15, 2012, Dawn Cobb (“Plaintiff”)
protectively filed for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits as well as Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) alleging disability beginning November
14, 2011 due to anxiety disorder, arthritis in both knees,
hypothyroidism, learning problems, and depression. The
applications were initially denied. T. 94, 95, 96-101.
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law
judge. T. 104-06. Plaintiff appeared and testified at a
hearing held on February 12, 2014, in Syracuse, N.Y. A
supplemental hearing took place on April 17, 2014, also in
Syracuse, N.Y., at which Roxanne Benoit, an impartial
vocational expert, provided testimony. Timothy J. McMahon,
Esq., an attorney, represented plaintiff. On May 22, 2014,
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Elizabeth W.
Koennecke issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not
disabled. T. 8-21. This decision became the final decision of
the Commissioner on October 5, 2015, when the Appeals Council
denied plaintiff's request for review. T. 1-5. This
parties do not dispute the underlying facts of this case as
set forth by plaintiff in her Memorandum of Law (Pl. Mem.) at
3-9, and by the ALJ in her decision, T. 11, 13-20.
Accordingly, the Court assumes familiarity with these facts
and will set forth only those facts material to the
THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE'S DECISION
alleged disability since November 14, 2011, due to anxiety,
depression, learning problems, hypothyroidism, and arthritis
of both knees. T. 207. The ALJ found that plaintiff met the
insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2016.
T. 13. At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since November 14, 2011. T. 13. At step two, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had severe impairments, which were mild
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and a mental
impairment, variously characterized. Tr. 14. The ALJ also
found that plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome, for which
she underwent surgery, was expected to resolve in less than
twelve months, and that her knee condition and hypothyroidism
were not medically determinable impairments. T. 14. At step
three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. T. 14-15.
then found that plaintiff retained the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to perform a range of light work as defined in
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with
exceptions. T. 17-19. The exceptions were that plaintiff
could only occasionally kneel and bend; mentally, she was
limited to understanding and following only simple
instructions and directions; performing simple tasks with
supervision and independently; maintaining
attention/concentration for simple tasks; regularly attending
to a routine and maintaining a schedule; relating and
interacting appropriately with others in carrying out simple
and repetitive tasks; and handling reasonable levels of
stress, defined as performing work with occasional decision
making related to the performance of simple tasks involving
goal-oriented work, rather than work involving a production
rate pace. T. 17.
four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform her
past relevant work as an office cleaner and food assembler.
T. 19. At step five, the ALJ used the Medical-Vocational
Rules 202.14 as a framework for decision-making and relied on
vocational expert evidence to conclude that there were a
significant number of other jobs that plaintiff could
perform. T. 19-20. Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff
could perform the duties of an information clerk, laundry
sorter, and cashier/toll collector. T. 19-20. Therefore, the
ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning
of the Act. T. 20-21. On October 5, 2015, the Appeals Council
denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final Agency
decision. T. 1-5.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court's review of the Commissioner's determination is
limited to two inquiries. See 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). First, the Court determines whether the Commissioner
applied the correct legal standard. See Tejada v.
Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999); Balsamo v.
Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998); Cruz v.
Sullivan, 912 F.2d 8, 11 (2d Cir. 1990); Shane v.
Chater, No. 96-CV-66, 1997 WL 426203, at *4 (N.D.N.Y
July 16, 1997)(Pooler, J.)(citing Johnson v. Bowen,
817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)). Second, the Court must
determine whether the Commissioner's findings are
supported by substantial evidence in the administrative
record. See Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773;
Balsamo, 142 F.3d at 79; Cruz, 912 F.2d at
11; Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d
Cir. 1982). A Commissioner's finding will be deemed
conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See
42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Perez, 77 F.3d at
46; Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir.
1984)("It is not the function of a reviewing court to
determine de novo whether a Plaintiff is disabled.
The [Commissioner's] findings of fact, if supported by
substantial evidence, are binding.")(citations omitted).
In the context of Social Security cases, substantial evidence
consists of "more than a mere scintilla" and is
measured by "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401
(1971)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305
U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Where the record supports disparate
findings and provides adequate support for both the
Plaintiff's and the Commissioner's positions, a
reviewing court must accept the ALJ's factual
determinations. See Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29,
36 (2d Cir. 1997)(citing Schauer v. Schweiker, 675
F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982)); Alston v. Sullivan, 904
F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990). Although the reviewing court
must give deference to the Commissioner's decision, a
reviewing court must bear in mind that the Act is ultimately
“‘a remedial statute which must be
‘liberally applied;' its intent is inclusion rather
than exclusion.'” Vargas v. Sullivan, 898
F.2d 293, 296 (2d Cir. 1990)(quoting Rivera v.
Schweiker, 717 F.2d 719, 723 (2d Cir. 1983)).
Step Two Determination
argues that the ALJ erred at step two in assessing the
severity of her impairments arising from her learning
problems, her knee issues, and her bilateral wrist problems.
Plaintiff contends that the step two severity analysis is not
supported by substantial evidence, and by failing to properly
address the severity of the afore-mentioned impairments, the
ALJ committed harmful error that affected the ALJ's
analysis at subsequent steps, including the finding at step
five that plaintiff can perform other work. Accordingly,
plaintiff contends that this matter should be remanded for
further administrative proceedings.
Commissioner counters that the ALJ found at step two that
plaintiff had the severe impairments of mild degenerative
disc disease of the lumbar spine and variously characterized
mental impairments, and thus proceeded with the sequential
evaluation process. The Commissioner argues that all of
plaintiff's conditions - severe or otherwise -were
analyzed in the context of ...