United States District Court, W.D. New York
ANGELA D. FISK, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, United States District Judge
Plaintiff Angela D. Fisk challenges an Administrative Law
Judge's (“ALJ”) determination that she is not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
(“the Act”). Plaintiff alleges that she has been
disabled since August 1, 2010,  due to bipolar disorder, a
learning disability, headaches, and sleep apnea. Plaintiff
contends that her impairments render her unable to work, and
thus, she is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits and
supplemental security income on March 11, 2011, which was
denied on June 10, 2011. Plaintiff thereafter requested a
hearing before an ALJ. On February 11, 2013, ALJ Michael
Friedman conducted a video hearing at which Plaintiff
appeared and testified. Plaintiff was represented by counsel.
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 26 years old, with
a high school education, and no past relevant work
experience. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and
on February 20, 2013, issued a written decision denying
Plaintiff's application for benefits. The Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 2,
2014. Plaintiff filed the current action on November 3, 2014,
challenging the Commissioner's final
April 3, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 4, 5). On July 1, 2015, the
Commissioner filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.
(Docket No. 9). Plaintiff filed a reply on July 23, 2015
(Docket No. 10), at which time this Court took the matter
under advisement without oral argument. For the following
reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied, and
Defendant's motion is granted.
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).
“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).
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).
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.
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).
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 August 1, 2010,
the alleged onset date (R. at 22); (2) Plaintiff's
depressive disorder is a severe impairment within the meaning
of the Act (R. at 23); (3) Plaintiff does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meet or
medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. at 23); (4) Plaintiff
retained the residual functional capacity to perform a full
range of work at all exertional levels but with the
nonexertional limitation of simple, routine, repetitive type
tasks involving only occasional contact with others (R. at
25); (5) Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in
significant number in the national economy (R. at 27).
Considering Plaintiff's status as a younger individual,
with a high school education, no transferable job skills due
to lack of past relevant work, and a residual capacity with
non-exertional limitations, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
was not under a disability as defined by the Act at any time
through the date of his decision, February 20, 2013. (R. at
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to
follow the treating-physician rule and failing to properly
determine her residual functional capacity; (2) failing to
properly evaluate Plaintiff's credibility; and (3)
relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. Each argument
will be discussed in turn.
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred by rejecting the
opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician and instead
substituting his own lay interpretation of the clinical and
diagnostic findings in the treatment notes. The
treating-physician rule requires an ALJ to give controlling
weight to a treating source's opinion on the issues of
the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments, if
the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the
record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2),
416.927(c)(2); Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 32
(2d Cir. 2004). If the ALJ does not give controlling weight
to a treating source's opinion, he must apply several
factors to determine what weight to afford the opinion, which
(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the
frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the
treatment relationship; (3) the degree to which the medical
source supported his opinion; (4) the degree of consistency
between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether
the opinion is given by a ...