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Fisk v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 29, 2017

ANGELA D. FISK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, United States District Judge

         1. 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, [1] 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.

         2. 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 decision.[2]

         3. On 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.

         4. A 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).

         5. “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).

         6. The 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).

         7. The 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. § 404.1520.

         8. 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).

         9. In 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)[3]; (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 27).

         10. 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.

         11. 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 include:

(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 ...

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