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Puccio v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 31, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Antoinette Puccio (“Plaintiff”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties have cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkts. 9, 15.) Plaintiff seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision and an immediate award of benefits, or alternatively, remand for further administrative proceedings. The Commissioner seeks affirmation of the denial of Plaintiff's claims. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and DENIES the Commissioner's motion. The case is remanded for further proceedings on a narrow issue as discussed herein consistent with this opinion.



         On September 13, 2010, Plaintiff applied for DIB alleging that she had been disabled since April 1, 2009, due to diabetes, Meniere's digestive disorder, depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. (Tr. 206-07, 234-35.)[1] On initial review, Plaintiff's application was denied. (Tr. 92, 133-40.) On January 21, 2011, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 141), and on January 27, 2012, ALJ Harvey Feldmeier presided over a hearing. (Tr. 34-68.) The ALJ issued a written decision on April 24, 2012, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to DIB. (Tr. 97-110.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ decision (Tr. 22-23) and on July 19, 2013, the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (“Appeals Council”) remanded the case for further administrative proceedings, noting that Plaintiff's last insured date was December 2014, not December 2011, and thus the ALJ should have made findings through the date of his April 2012 decision rather than through December 2011; ALJ Feldmeier had left a period unadjudicated. (Tr. 93-96.)

         On June 12, 2014, ALJ Margaret Donaghy presided over a hearing in which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 69-91.) A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. (Tr. 69-91, 137-74.) At this hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date from April 1, 2009, to January 1, 2012. (Tr. 72-73.)[2] On July 16, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 111-130.) Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on November 30, 2015, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-4.) Plaintiff timely commenced this action on December 7, 2015, and cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings were fully briefed on January 25, 2017.


         The Court adopts the undisputed and comprehensive factual recitation contained in the Commissioner's motion and the references to the administrative record included therein. (Dkt. 16.) However, the Court discusses the record evidence in further detail as necessary to address the motions.



         Unsuccessful claimants for disability benefits under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) may bring an action in federal district court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of their benefits “within sixty days after the mailing . . . of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, the Court's duty 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). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted)). In determining whether the Commissioner's findings were based upon substantial evidence, “the reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.” Id. (internal citation omitted). However, “it is up to the agency, and not this court, to weigh the conflicting evidence in the record.” Clark v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 143 F.3d 115, 118 (2d Cir. 1998). Under any circumstances, if there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's findings as to any fact, they are conclusive and must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 175-76 (2d Cir. 2013).


         In order to be found eligible for DIB benefits, claimants must be disabled as defined by the Act. Claimants are disabled under the meaning of the Act when they are unable “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The claimant must prove that the impairment is “of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do [his or her] previous work but cannot, considering [his or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). However, the ALJ has an affirmative obligation to develop the administrative record. Lamay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 508-09 (2d Cir. 2009). This means that the ALJ must seek additional evidence or clarification when the claimant's medical reports contain conflicts or ambiguities, if the reports do not contain all necessary information, or if the reports lack medically acceptable clinic and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(e)(1).

         In evaluating disability claims, the ALJ must adhere to a five-step inquiry. The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps in the inquiry; the Commissioner bears the burden in the final step. Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012). First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the answer is yes, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the ALJ proceeds to the second step to determine whether the claimant suffers from a “severe impairment.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is determined to be severe when it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(c). If the impairment is not severe, then the claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. However, if the impairment is severe, the ALJ proceeds to the third step, which considers whether the impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Act's regulations (the “Listings”). 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.

         If the ALJ determines at step three that the claimant has one of the listed impairments, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled under the Act. On the other hand, if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) before continuing with steps four and five. The claimant's RFC is an assessment which considers the claimant's “impairment(s), and any related symptoms . . . [which] may cause physical and mental limitations that affect what [the claimant] can do in the work setting.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ will then use the RFC determination in step four to determine if the claimant can perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the answer is yes, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise the ALJ will proceed to step five where the Commissioner then must determine whether the claimant, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and ...

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