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De Mota v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 24, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          Paul E. Davison U.S.M.J.


         Plaintiff Altagracia Mariano De Mota ("Plaintiff, " or "Claimant, ") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) challenging the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or the "Commissioner") denying Plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits. R. 10-12. The matter is before me pursuant to a Notice, Consent and Reference of a Civil Action to a Magistrate Judge entered April 8, 2016. Dkt. 24. Presently before this Court are Defendant's motion for remand and Plaintiffs cross motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Dkts. 26 (Defendant's motion), 27 (Defendant's memorandum of law[2]), 30 (Plaintiffs cross motion), 31 (Plaintiffs memorandum of law in support[3]), 37 (Defendant's response[4]), 38 (Plaintiffs reply[5]).

         Both parties request that the case be remanded to the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff seeks judgment on the pleadings and remand solely for the calculation of benefits. Dkts. 31, 37. The Commissioner requests remand for further administrative proceedings concerning Plaintiffs eligibility for benefits. Dkts. 27, 38. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion for remand for additional administrative proceedings is GRANTED, and Plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings and remand for the calculation of benefits is DENIED. The Court further directs that the remand will be assigned to a different administrative law judge ("ALJ"), II. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken from the administrative record ("R.") of the Social Security Administration, Dkt. 11, filed by Defendant in conjunction with the Answer, Dkt. 10.

         A. Application History

         On October 20, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, R. 223-232 (application for disability benefits) and a Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). R. 233-238 (application for SSI benefits). Her applications were denied. R. 123-130. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an ALJ on February 14, 2012. R. 131. Plaintiff appeared before AL J Sethi. Grossman represented by counsel, Eliana Robles, on December 28, 2012, R. 41-72, and represented by counsel, Ruth Axelrod on June 14, 2013. R. 73-120. On March 11, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 10-12. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on July 16, 2015. R. 1-4. Plaintiff timely filed this action on August 29, 2015. Dkt. 1.

         Plaintiff was born in Santo Domingo on March 12, 1955. R. 266. From 1998 to 2008, Plaintiff worked for Mana Products in the Bronx. R. 271. While at Mana Products, Plaintiff worked in the machine room, on the line, and in packing. R. 111. From 2008 through 2011, Plaintiff worked as a childcare provider for four children. R. 258. During the school year, she would work four hours a day and during the summer she would work eight hours a day. R. 258. In her application for disability insurance, Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since September 30, 2010 (the "Alleged Disability Onset Date"). R. 266.

         B. Plaintiffs Hearing Testimony

         On December 28, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ for her first administrative proceeding. R. 41-72. Plaintiff testified that she had two children, a daughter and a son, but lived alone. R. 57. During questioning by her counsel, Plaintiff testified that she had stopped working because of her psychiatric problems, because she was hearing voices, walking with shadows, and other "things like that." R. 66. Plaintiff testified to undergoing psychiatric treatment to address her suicidal thoughts and memoiy problems. R. 67.

         At Plaintiffs second hearing, held on June 14, 2013, R. 73-120, Plaintiff testified further about her visual and auditory hallucinations. R. 78-79. For much of Plaintiff s second hearing, the ALJ questioned a court-appointed Medical Expert, Dr. Michael Friedman, about his evaluation of Plaintiff s medical record. R. 87-94. At the end of the hearing, the ALJ questioned a vocational expert, Raymond Cestar, about Plaintiffs past relevant work, and Plaintiffs work limitations. R. 110-111; 113-119.


         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, a district court may "enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "It is not the function of a reviewing court to decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled." Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999). Rather, the court's review is limited to "determining] whether there is substantial evidence supporting the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard." Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 305 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam).

         The substantial evidence standard is "even more" deferential than the 'clearly erroneous' standard. Brault v. Social Sec. Admin, 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012). The reviewing court must defer to the Commissioner's factual findings, and the Commissioner's findings of fact are considered conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence" is "more than a mere scintilla" and "means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lamay v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec, 562 F.3d 503, 507 (2d Cir. 2009) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). "In determining whether the agency's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn." Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotations omitted). "When there are gaps in the administrative record or the ALJ has applied an improper legal standard, " or when the ALJ's rationale is unclear in light of the record evidence, remand to the Commissioner "for further development of the evidence" or for an explanation of the ALJ's reasoning is warranted. Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 39 (2d Cir. 1996).

         B. Statutory Disability

         A claimant is disabled under the SSA when he or she lacks the ability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . .. ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In addition, a person is eligible for disability benefits under the SSA only if:

his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         A claimant's eligibility for SSA disability benefits is evaluated pursuant to a five-step sequential analysis:

1. The Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.
2. If not, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which limits his or her mental or physical ability to do basic work activities.
3. If the claimant has a "severe impairment, " the Commissioner must ask whether, based solely on medical evidence, claimant has an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has one of these enumerated impairments, the Commissioner will automatically consider him disabled, without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience.
4. If the impairment is not "listed" in the regulations, the Commissioner then asks whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he or she has residual functional capacity to perform his or her past work.
5. If the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Rolon v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec, 994 F.Supp.2d 496, 503 (S.D.N.Y. 2014); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). The claimant bears the burden of proof as to the first four steps of the process. See Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003). If the claimant proves that his impairment prevents him from performing his past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth and final step. See Id. At the fifth step, the Commissioner must prove that the claimant is capable of obtaining substantial gainful employment in the national economy. See Butts v, Barnhart, 416 F.3d 101, 103 (2d Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. §404.1560(c)(2).

         C. Remand for Administrative Proceedings

         Pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court has the "power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (made applicable to Title XVI by 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)); Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 297 (1993); Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 98 (1991). A remand for further proceedings may be ordered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in cases where the Commissioner "has failed to provide a full and fair hearing, to make explicit findings, or to have correctly applied the law and regulations." Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 98 (U.S. 1991); see Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 82-83 (2d Cir. 1999).

         D. Remand for Calculation of Benefits

         Where the evidence shows overwhelming proof of disability, and no purpose would be served by a remand for a new hearing, the Court has the authority to reverse for calculation of benefits when the record provides "persuasive evidence of total disability that render[s] any further proceedings pointless." Gonzalez v. Apfel, 113 F.Supp.2d 580, 590-91 (S.D.N.Y. 2000). Further, if the ALJ's decision is based upon an error of law and "where application of the correct legal principles to the record could lead to only one conclusion, there is no need to require agency reconsideration." Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) (citing Havas v. Bowen, 804 F.3d 783, 786 (2d Cir. 1986)). In such a case, a remand solely for the purpose of calculating benefits is appropriate. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 82 (2d Cir. 1998); Parker v, Harris, 626 F.2d, 225, 235 (2d Cir. 1980).

         E. Duty to Evaluate Medical Opinion Evidence

         An ALJ is obliged to consider medical opinions on a claimant's functioning and is tasked with reaching an residual functional capacity assessment based on the record as a whole. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.9527(d)(2) ("Although we consider opinions from medical sources on issues such as .. .your residual functional capacity.. .the final responsibility for deciding these issues is reserved to the Commissioner."). It is the Commissioner's role to weigh medical opinion evidence and to resolve conflicts in that evidence. See Cage v. Comm V of Soc. Sec, 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012); Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 588 (2d Cir. 2002) ("Genuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve.").

         F. The ...

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