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Atkinson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

April 6, 2017

AARON J. ATKINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OFFICE OF PETER W. ANTONOWICZ Counsel for Plaintiff PETER W. ANTONOWICZ, ESQ.

          U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL - REGION II Counsel for Defendant SERGEI ADEN, ESQ.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          GLENN T. SUDDABY, Chief United States District Judge.

         Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Aaron Atkinson (“Plaintiff”) against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 12, 13.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied, and Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted. The Commissioner's decision denying Plaintiff's disability benefits is affirmed, and Plaintiff's Complaint is dismissed.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1962 and was 51 years old on the date he filed his application. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and past work as a truck driver, dump truck driver, and hunting guide. Generally, Plaintiff alleged disability consisting of herniated discs with degenerative disc disease, emphysema, arthritis, a right rotator cuff tear, depression, and anxiety.

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income on June 12, 2013, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2002. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on September 16, 2013, after which he timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On January 15, 2015, Plaintiff appeared at a video hearing before ALJ Lisa B. Martin. (T. 11, 28-70.) On April 24, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 11-25.) On June 6, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-3.)

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         Generally, in her decision, the ALJ made the following six findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 13-21.) First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 12, 2013, the application filing date. (T. 13.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's lumbar spine disorder with associated stage-two spondylolosthesis, spina bifida accula at ¶ 5, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, and anxiety are severe impairments. (T. 13.) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (the “Listings”). (T. 14-15.) More specifically, the ALJ considered Listings 1.00 (musculoskeletal system impairments), 3.00 (respiratory disorders), 12.00 (mental disorders), 12.04 (affective disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). (Id.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform

a full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), except the claimant must avoid all climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolding, and is limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. The claimant must also avoid all dangerous work hazards (including unprotected heights and exposed machinery), all exposure to extreme heat, humidity, and cold, and all exposure to concentrated pulmonary irritants. The claimant will further need a brief (one to two minutes) change in position opportunity as often as every 30 minutes for one to two minutes. The claimant also needs a work setting requiring no more than occasional work interactions with co-workers, supervisors, and the public.

(T. 15.) Fifth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has past work as a truck driver (medium, SVP 3), dump truck driver (medium, SVP 2), and hunting guide (very heavy, SVP 7), though the ALJ also found that Plaintiff is unable to perform this past work based on the restrictions in the RFC. (T. 19-20.) Sixth, and finally, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including packer, cleaner, and sorter. (T. 20-21.)

         D. The Parties' Briefings on Their Cross-Motions

         Generally, Plaintiff asserts two arguments in support of his motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly develop the record by failing to retain the services of a consultative examiner or to contact the treating sources to either provide a consultative examination or answer questions regarding Plaintiff's specific impairments. (Dkt. No. 12, at 7-8 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Within this argument, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ was required to obtain a consultative examination because the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff had severe impairments conflicted with the findings of the Single Decision Maker[1] who made the initial Agency determination of non-disability. (Id.) Plaintiff implies that, had the Single Decision Maker properly found a severe impairment at that earlier stage, he would have been required to obtain a consultative examination, and so the ALJ should have obtained a consultative examination upon determining severe impairments were present. (Id.)

         Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to the opinions of the treating social worker and treating nurse practitioner by failing to provide adequate reasons for discrediting these opinions and instead substituting her own opinion in place of the opinions present in the record. (Id. at 8-10.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected these opinions because the providing nurse practitioner and social worker were not classified as “medically acceptable sources” under the regulations rather than affording those opinions appropriate consideration as required by SSR 06-03p. (Id.)

         Generally, Defendant asserts two counter-arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Defendant argues that the ALJ was not required to seek a consultative examination or other further evidence because there was sufficient evidence in the record for her to render a finding that was supported by substantial evidence ...


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