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Moore v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

April 10, 2017

ALFRED VAUGHN MOORE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendants.

          PETER M. MARGOLIUS, ESQ. DAVID L. BROWN, ESQ.

          OFFICE OF PETER M. MARGOLIUS Attorney for Plaintiff SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Attorney for Defendant

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER [1]

          Daniel J. Stewart U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Alfred Vaughn Moore brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). This case has proceeded in accordance with General Order 18, which sets forth the procedures to be followed in appealing a denial of Social Security benefits. Both parties have filed briefs. Dkt. Nos. 10, Pl.'s Br., 11, Def.'s Br. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 11, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on July 30, 2009. Dkt. No. 8, Admin. Transcript [hereinafter “Tr.”] at p. 10. Plaintiff was born on July 8, 1964. Id. at p. 142. For the majority of his life, Plaintiff worked in construction. Id. at p. 147. Plaintiff stopped working on September 26, 2008, when he suffered an injury to his lower back at work. Id. at p. 146. The accident occurred when Plaintiff stepped off a foundation into mud and twisted his right leg. Id. at p. 265. Since that date, Plaintiff has suffered lower back pain that has prevented him from working and limited his activities. Id. at pp. 27-28, 156, & 159-60. Plaintiff has been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and lumbago. Id. at pp. 227.

         Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on October 2, 2013. Id. at pp. 54-57. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held in White Plains, New York on August 8, 2014 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Katherine Edgell. Id. at p. 21. Plaintiff appeared and testified by video, and was represented by a non-attorney representative, Janice Cammarato. Id. at p. 23. The ALJ also heard testimony from Esperanzo DiStefano, a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at p. 44. On October 8, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id. at pp. 10-16. On January 4, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. Id. at pp. 1-3. Plaintiff timely filed this action on March 7, 2016. Dkt. No. 1, Compl.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the proper standard of review for this Court is not to employ a de novo review, but rather to discern whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and that the correct legal standards have been applied. See Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991); Urtz v. Callahan, 965 F.Supp. 324, 325-26 (N.D.N.Y. 1997) (citing, inter alia, Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987)). Succinctly defined, substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla” of evidence scattered throughout the administrative record; rather, it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938); see also Williams ex. rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). “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 ex. rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d at 258.

         The ALJ must set forth the crucial factors supporting the decision with sufficient specificity. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984). Where the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the court may not interject its interpretation of the administrative record. Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d at 258; 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, where the weight of the evidence does not meet the requirement for substantial evidence or a reasonable basis for doubt exists as to whether correct legal principles were applied, the ALJ's decision may not be affirmed. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d at 986.

         B. Determination of Disability[2]

         To be considered disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must establish an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or 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). Furthermore, the claimant's physical or mental impairments must be of such severity as to prevent engagement in any kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. Id. at § 423(d)(2)(A).

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step analysis set forth in the Social Security Administration Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920. At Step One, the Commissioner “considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he or she is not disabled and the inquiry ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) & 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Two and assesses whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id. at §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). If the claimant suffers from a severe impairment, the Commissioner considers at Step Three whether such impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1, in Part 404, Subpart P of the Regulations. Id. at §§ 404.1520(d) & 416.920(d). The Commissioner makes this assessment without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d at 467. Where the claimant has such an impairment the inquiry ceases as he or she is presumed to be disabled and unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Id. If the claimant's impairment(s) does not meet or equal the listed impairments, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Four and considers whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] to perform his or her past relevant work despite the existence of severe impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & 416.920(e). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past work, then at Step Five, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant can perform any other work available in the national economy. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d at 467; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) & 416.920(g).

         Initially, the burden of proof lies with the claimant to show that his or her impairment(s) prevents a return to previous employment (Steps One through Four). Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d at 467. If the claimant meets that burden, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at Step Five to establish, with specific reference to medical evidence, that the claimant's physical and/or mental impairment(s) are not of such severity as to prevent him or her from performing work that is available within the national economy. Id.; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also White v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 910 F.2d 64, 65 (2d Cir. 1990). In making this showing at Step Five, the claimant's RFC must be considered along with other vocational factors such as age, education, past work experience, and transferability of skills. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f) & 416.920(f); see also New York v. Sullivan, 906 F.2d 910, 913 (2d Cir. 1990).

         C. ALJ Edgell's Findings

         ALJ Edgell noted that for the purposes of Plaintiff's DIB application, Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2014. Tr. at p. 12. Using the five-step disability evaluation, ALJ Edgell found that: (1) at Step One, Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 30, 2009, the alleged onset date; (2) at Step Two, Plaintiff has severe medically determinable impairments, specifically, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine and lumbago; (3) at Step Three, Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal any impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P of the Social Security Regulation; (4) Plaintiff retains the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b); (5) at Step Four, Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a labor foreman. Id. at pp. 12-16.

         D. Plaintiff's Contentions

         Generally, Plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ's RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence and (2) the ALJ did not give proper weight to the opinion of Kenneth Hansraj, M.D., Plaintiff's treating physician. Pl.'s Br.

         1. The ALJ's RFC Assessment

         The RFC is an assessment of “what an individual can still do despite his or her limitations.” Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Policy Interpretation Ruling Titles II and XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims, Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (S.S.A. 1996)). “Ordinarily, RFC is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis, and the RFC assessment must include a discussion of the individual's abilities on that basis. A ‘regular and continuing basis' means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule.” Id. (quoting SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2). When making the RFC determination, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence in the record in order to assess a claimant's physical abilities, mental abilities, and other limitations that could interfere with performing work activities on a regular ...


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