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Dingman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 24, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Genevieve Dingman (“Plaintiff”), represented by counsel, brings this action pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”)[1]denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). This Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).

         II. Procedural Status

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on September 19, 2012, alleging disability beginning September 18, 2009, due to back problems, neck problems, shoulder problems, and ankle problems. These applications were denied on February 27, 2013, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. On May 27, 2014, a videoconference hearing was held before administrative law judge Roxanne Fuller (“the ALJ”). (See T.31-54).[2] Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified, as did impartial vocational expert, Howard Steinberg (“the VE”). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision (T.12-26) on August 15, 2014, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which denied review on December 21, 2015 (T.1-8). The ALJ's decision therefore became the Commissioner's final decision. This timely action followed.

         The parties have cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court adopts and incorporates by reference herein the undisputed and comprehensive factual summaries contained in the parties' briefs. The record will be discussed in more detail below as necessary to the resolution of this appeal. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's date last insured, for DIB purposes, was December 31, 2015. (T.14). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of September 18, 2009. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease and partial rotator cuff tear (right shoulder), were “severe impairments.” (Id.). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (T.16).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff as having the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in the Commissioner's Regulations, [3] with the following limitations: Plaintiff could never climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl, could frequently reach and overhead reach with both arms; tolerate occasional exposure to moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights; and occasionally operate a motor vehicle. (T.17).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a teacher aide and production solderer. (T.24).

         Notwithstanding her finding that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work, the ALJ continued to step five. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was a “younger individual, ” with at least a high school education, and ability to communicate in English. (T.25). The ALJ determined that the transferability of skills was not material because the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“the Grids”), see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, would support a finding of “not disabled” regardless of whether Plaintiff had transferable job skills. (T.25). The ALJ then noted that if Plaintiff had the RFC for a full range of work at the light level, then Rule 202.21 of the Grids would direct a finding of “not disabled.” (Id.). However, Plaintiff's ability to perform all, or substantially all, of the requirements of light work was eroded by additional limitations. (Id.). The ALJ, therefore, considered the VE's testimony. (T.26, 49-54).

         At the hearing, the VE identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as a teacher aide (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”)[4]No. 249.367-074), classified as light work; packer (DOT No. 920.587-018), classified as medium work; and production solderer (DOT No. 813.684-022), classified as light work. (T.50). The ALJ asked the VE to assume a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and the above-described RFC. The VE testified that such a person could perform Plaintiff's past relevant work as a teacher's aide and production solderer. (T.51). The VE also testified that other jobs existed in the national economy that a person with Plaintiff's RFC could perform, including cashier (DOT No. 211.462-010, light work; 821, 000 positions nationally and 48, 000 positions regionally); sales attendant (DOT No. 299.677-010, light work; 2, 152, 000 positions nationally and 12, 800 positions regionally); and office helper (DOT No. 239.567-010, light work; 188, 000 positions nationally and 8, 300 positions regionally). (T.26, 52). Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (T.26).


         A decision that a claimant is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [the district court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). This deferential standard is not applied to the Commissioner's application of the law, and the district court must independently determine whether the Commissioner's decision applied the correct legal standards in determining that the claimant was not disabled. Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984). Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. Id. Therefore, this Court first reviews whether the applicable legal standards were correctly applied, and, if so, then considers the substantiality of the evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987).


         I. Erroneous Weighing of Various Medical Opinions

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of Dr. Rebecca Wadsworth, Dr. Phillip Vitticore, Dr. Karl Eurenius, and Physical Therapist Kim Jablonski. As discussed further below, the Court finds that the ALJ's assessments of the opinions ...

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