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Beall v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 27, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Olinsky Law Group Attorneys for Plaintiff Social Security Administration, Office of General Counsel Attorneys for Defendant


          JASON P. PECK, ESQ. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney



         Plaintiff Morgan Christopher Beall (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”). Plaintiff moves for a finding of disability, or in the alternative, for the matter to be remanded for further proceedings, and the Commissioner cross-moves for a judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. Nos. 1, 8.

         I. Background

         On September 26, 2012, plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., claiming an alleged onset date of May 15, 2012. T.[1] 168-70. The application was denied on December 20, 2012. Id. at 87-90. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was first held before ALJ Marie Greener on February 27, 2014. Id. at 48-70. A second hearing was held on June 19, 2014, at which time ALJ Greener sought the testimony of a vocational expert. See T. 29-47. In a decision dated August 6, 2014, the ALJ held that plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. Id. at 10-28. Plaintiff filed a timely request for review with the Appeals Council, and on December 2, 2015, the request was denied, thus making the ALJ's findings the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-5. This action followed.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is “‘more than a mere scintilla, '” meaning that in the record one can find “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         “In addition, an ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision.” Barringer v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 358 F.Supp.2d 67, 72 (N.D.N.Y. 2005) (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984)). However, a court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Halloran, 362 F.3d at 31.

         B. Determination of Disability

         “Every individual who is under a disability. . . shall be entitled to a disability. . . benefit . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). Disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). A medically-determinable impairment is an affliction that is so severe that it renders an individual unable to continue with his or her previous work or any other employment that may be available to him or her based upon age, education, and work experience. Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Such an impairment must be supported by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. § 423(d)(3). Additionally, the severity of the impairment is “based [upon] objective medical facts, diagnoses or medical opinions inferable from [the] facts, subjective complaints of pain or disability, and educational background, age, and work experience.” Ventura v. Barnhart, No. 04 Civ. 9018(NRB), 2006 WL 399458, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2006) (citing Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1037 (2d Cir. 1983)) (additional citation omitted).

         The Second Circuit employs a five-step analysis, based on 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, to determine whether an individual is entitled to disability benefits:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he [or she] is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits his [or her] 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 [or her] 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 [or she] has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his [or her] past work. Finally, 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.

Berry, 675 F.2d at 467. The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proof to establish each of the first four steps. DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1179-80 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467). If the inquiry progresses to the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that the plaintiff is still able to engage in gainful employment somewhere. Id. at 1180 (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467).

         C. ALJ Greener's Findings

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at the hearings held on February 27 and June 19, 2014. T. 29-70. Using the five-step sequential evaluation, ALJ Greener found that plaintiff (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2012, the alleged onset date; (2) had the following severe medically-determinable impairments: degenerative disc disease in the cervical and lumbar spines, adjustment disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder; (3) did not have an impairment, alone or in combination, sufficient to meet the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P of Social Security Regulation Part 404; (4) maintained “the residual functional capacity to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). He can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and stand or walk for 6 hours in that workday if he can alternate sitting and standing, with sitting limited to 60 minutes at a time after which he can stand for 5 minutes or so. During the position change, he does not have to leave the workstation. The claimant can stand or walk for 60 minutes at a time, but then has to sit for 5 minutes or so before resuming standing and walking. The work must be low stress, specifically meaning that it must concern routine daily tasks that do not significantly change in pace or location on a daily basis and do not ordinarily require confrontation with others, such as arguing with customers or detaining or restraining individuals”; and, thus (5) was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 15-23.

         D. Plaintiff's Contentions

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ (1) erred in failing to assign any weight to plaintiff's Veterans Administration (VA) disability determination; (2) erred in failing to find that plaintiff's degenerative disc disease did not meet or equal Listing 1.04(A); (3) erred in failing to give good reasons for the rejection of the opinions of physical therapist Caryn Lindsay, and pain management specialist Dr. Renee S. Melfi, M.D.; (4) erred in assessing plaintiff's credibility in terms of his pain; and (5) erred in presenting the vocational expert with hypothetical questions that did not fully take into account plaintiff's limitations. See Dkt. No. 11.

         1. Listing 1.04(A)

         As previously stated, at step three of the sequential disability evaluation process, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's conditions meet or equal the requirements for any impairment listed in Part 404 of the Social Security Regulations, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). “The Listing of Impairments describes, for each of the major body systems, impairments which are considered severe enough to prevent a person from doing any gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). If a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, the evaluation ...

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