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Hughes v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 22, 2017

BRIAN EDWARD HUGHES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. SKRETNY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         1. Plaintiff Brian Edward Hughes challenges an Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) determination that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) for a period from October 12, 2012, through June 20, 2013. Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled since October 12, 2012, due to depression, anxiety, migraines, and bipolar disorder. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to payment of disability benefits under the Act.

         2. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on March 4, 2014, which the Commissioner denied on April 25, 2014. On April 30, 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. On June 6, 2014, ALJ William M. Weir conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, a vocational expert, and Plaintiff's mother appeared and testified. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 48 years old, with a college education, and previous work experience at a bank and financial firm. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on September 18, 2014, issued a written decision granting Plaintiff's application for benefits as of July 1, 2013, but denying Plaintiff's application for benefits for the period from October 12, 2012, to June 30, 2013. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 4, 2015. Plaintiff filed the current action on March 2, 2015, challenging the Commissioner's final decision.[1]

         3. On October 27, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12 (c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket No. 8.) On February 26, 2016, the Commissioner filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Docket No. 14.) For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is granted, Defendant's motion is denied, and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

         4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); 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 it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See 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 that which amounts to “more than a mere scintilla, ” and it 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, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

         5. “To determine on appeal whether an ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.” Williams on Behalf of 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 will 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).

         6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled. 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987).

         7. This five-step process is detailed below:

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.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam) (quotations in original); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         8. Although the claimant has the burden of proof on the first four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step is divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his physical ability, age, education, and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a person having the claimant's qualifications could perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

         9. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 12, 2012, the alleged onset date (R. at 19);[2] (2) Plaintiff's major depressive disorder was a “severe” impairment within the meaning of the Act (R. at 19); (3) before July 1, 2013 (the date Plaintiff became disabled), Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. at 20); (4) before July 1, 2013, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, except no more than occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public (R. at 21); (5) before July 1, 2013, Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy (R. at 23); (6) as of July 1, 2013, Plaintiff's impairments have met or medically equaled the severity of one listed in C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 24). Thus, Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time before July 1, 2013. (R. at 25).

         10. Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate his credibility, because he (1) failed to consider the reasons for Plaintiff's lack of medical treatment, and (2) failed to consider factors that enhance Plaintiff's credibility, such as his work history. Upon review of the ALJ's credibility determination, this Court concludes that it is insufficiently supported and legally deficient. Remand is therefore required.

         11. Credibility determinations are generally reserved to the Commissioner, not the reviewing court. Aponte v. Sec'y of Health and Human Svcs., 728 F.2d 588, 591 (2d Cir. 1984) (holding that it is the job of the Commissioner and not the reviewing court to make determinations on the credibility of witnesses); Carrol v. Sec'y of Health and Human Svcs., 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1982) (similar). The ALJ is required to evaluate the credibility of testimony or statements about the claimant's impairments when there is conflicting evidence about the extent of pain, limitations of ...


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