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Cobb v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 17, 2017

DAWN COBB, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior United States District Judge.

         Dawn 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 standards.

         Pursuant 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 this decision.


         On 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 action followed.

         III. FACTS

         The 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 parties' arguments.


         Plaintiff 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         At step 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.


         The 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)).


         a. Step Two Determination

         Plaintiff 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.

         The 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 ...

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