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Oney v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 21, 2017



          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, Terrilee Oney (“plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiff's motion is granted to the extent that this case is remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with this Decision and Order.

         II. Procedural History

         The record reveals that in March 2011, plaintiff (d/o/b February 7, 1961) applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of January 20, 2011. After her applications were denied, plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before administrative law judge David S. Lewandowski (“the ALJ”) on November 7, 2012. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 22, 2013. The Appeals Council denied review of that decision and this timely action followed.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         Initially, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2013. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 20, 2011, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spines, degenerative changes of the hip, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (“COPD”). At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any listed impairment.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that, considering all of plaintiff's impairments, plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), “except she [could] perform occasional postural activities but should not climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds”; she “should not work with hazards, including dangerous machinery and unprotected heights”; she could “perform occasional flexion, extension and rotation of the neck”; and she “should avoid exposure to pulmonary irritants.” T. 17-18.

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a cafeteria aide and a teacher's aide. Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled and did not proceed to step five.

         IV. Discussion

         A district court may set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by “substantial evidence” or if the decision is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000).

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC determination was unsupported by any medical opinion in the record, and therefore was a result of the ALJ's own lay interpretation of the medical evidence. Although the ALJ gave “significant weight” to the consulting examining opinion of state agency internal medicine consultant Dr. John Shwab, plaintiff argues that his findings were not accounted for in the ALJ's RFC finding. Dr. Schwab's consulting examination, performed on June 17, 2011, found that plaintiff had significantly restricted range of motion (“ROM”) of the cervical spine. Specifically, plaintiff demonstrated cervical spine ROM of 10 degrees extension, 10 degrees flexion, and lateral flexion and rotation of zero degrees. Plaintiff also demonstrated decreased ROM of the lumbar spine, positive straight leg raise (“SLR”) test bilaterally, and limitation in ROM of the shoulders. Dr. Schwab opined that plaintiff had “marked restriction to moving her head in any direction and a marked restriction to bending, lifting, and carrying.” T. 326.

         The ALJ stated that he gave Dr. Schwab's opinion “[s]ignificant weight . . . as it [was] consistent with the residual functional capacity noted [in the ALJ's decision] with included light work with occasional flexion, extension and rotation of the neck and occasional postural activities.” T. 20. Apparently, therefore, the ALJ interpreted Dr. Schwab's “marked” restrictions in rotation of the head, bending, lifting, and carrying as consistent with the ALJ's RFC limiting plaintiff to “occasional” performance of postural activities and flexion, extension, and rotation of the neck.

         Plaintiff argues that Dr. Schwab's opinion was “too vague to be reasonably interpreted as being consistent with light work, ” even with the additional “occasional” limitations assigned by the ALJ. Doc. 9-1 at 16. The Court agrees. Dr. Schwab's use of the term “marked” to describe plaintiff's limitations indicates that he found those limitations to be quite restrictive; however, he did not define his meaning in using the term. The ALJ failed to explain how he arrived at the conclusion that the “marked” limitations found by Dr. Schwab ...

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