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Robinson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 27, 2017



          HON. FRANK P. GERACI, JR. Chief Judge

         Beverly L. Robinson (“Robinson” or “Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”) seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) that denied her application for disability insurance benefits (”DIB”) under Title II of the Act. ECF No. 1. This Court has jurisdiction over this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). ECF Nos. 12, 13, 14. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED and Plaintiff's motion is DENIED.


         On August 1, 2011, Robinson protectively applied for DIB with the Social Security Administration (“the SSA”). Tr.[2] 10. She alleged that she had been disabled since April 15, 2011, due to lower back pain, hip replacements, knee arthritis, loss of peripheral vision in the left eye, cataracts, numbness and tingling in the right hand and arm, and spinal disc damage. Tr. 186. After her application was denied at the initial administrative level, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Michael W. Devlin (“the ALJ”) on November 21, 2013, in which the ALJ considered Robinson's application de novo. Tr. 539-78. Robinson appeared at the hearing with her attorney and testified. Id. Julie A. Andrews, a vocational expert (“VE”), also appeared and testified. Tr. 566-77. On May 16, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Robinson was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 10-18. On June 26, 2015, that decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Robinson's request for review. Tr. 1-6. Thereafter, Robinson filed this action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. ECF No. 1.


         I. District Court Review

         “In reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Act holds that a decision by the Commissioner is “conclusive” if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moran v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 108, 112 (2d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). It is not this Court's function to “determine de novo whether [the claimant] is disabled.” Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990) (holding that review of the Secretary's decision is not de novo and that the Secretary's findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence).

         II. Disability Determination

         An ALJ must follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is “severe” within the meaning of the Act, meaning that it imposes significant restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the analysis concludes with a finding of “not disabled.” If the claimant does, the ALJ continues to step three.

         At step three, the ALJ examines whether a claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4 (the “Listings”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a Listing and meets the durational requirement (20 C.F.R. § 404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the ability to perform physical or mental work activities on a sustained basis, notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).

         The ALJ then proceeds to step four and determines whether the claimant's RFC permits him or her to perform the requirements of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can perform such requirements, then he or she is not disabled. If he or she cannot, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled. To do so, the Commissioner must present evidence to demonstrate that the claimant “retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” in light of his or her age, education, and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (quotation marks omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c).


         I. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ's decision analyzed Robinson's claim for benefits under the process described above. At step one, the ALJ found that Robinson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Tr. 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Robinson has the following severe impairments: low back, neck, and knee impairments with pain, status post bilateral hip replacements and right knee surgery, and asthma. Tr. 12-13. At step three, the ALJ found that such impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal an impairment in the Listings. Tr. 13.

         Next, the ALJ determined that Robinson retained the RFC to perform sedentary work[3]with additional limitations. Tr. 13-17. Specifically, the ALJ found that Robinson can occasionally push and pull 10 pounds, climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and other respiratory irritants, and hazards like machinery, heights, and extreme cold, heat, and humidity. Tr. 13.

         At step four, the ALJ found that this RFC allows Robinson to perform her past relevant work as a tax preparer and dispatcher clerk. Tr. 17-18. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that ...

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