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Alington v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

April 17, 2017



          DAVID G. LARIMER United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff appeals from a denial of disability benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”). The action is one brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's final determination.

         On July 12, 2012, plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, and supplemental security income under Title XVI. Plaintiff alleged an inability to work since May 14, 2011. (Tr. 22).[1] Her applications were initially denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held November 4, 2013 via videoconference before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John P. Ramos. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 4, 2014, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on April 20, 2015. (Tr. 1-3). Plaintiff now appeals.

         The plaintiff has moved to remand the matter, and the Commissioner has cross moved for judgment on the pleadings, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's motion for remand (Dkt. #14) is granted, and the Commissioner's cross motion (Dkt. #15) is denied.


         I. The ALJ's Evaluation

         An ALJ proceeds though a five-step evaluation in determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See 20 CFR §404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, then the ALJ continues to step two, and determines whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is “severe, ” e.g., that imposes significant restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 CFR §404.1520(c). If not, the analysis concludes with a finding of “not disabled.” If so, the ALJ proceeds to step three.

         At step three, the ALJ examines whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. If the impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and meets the durational requirement (20 CFR §404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, the ALJ's analysis proceeds to step four, and the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the ability to perform physical or mental work activities on a sustained basis, notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 CFR §404.1520(e), (f).

         The ALJ then turns to whether the claimant's RFC permits performance of the requirements of the claimant's past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled, by presenting evidence demonstrating that the claimant “retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” in light of his age, education, and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir.1999) (quoting Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 604 (2d Cir.1986)). See 20 CFR §404.1560(c).

         The Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ has applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir.2002). Substantial evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). “The Court carefully considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides ‘because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.'” Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 33 (2d Cir.1997)). Nonetheless, “it is not the function of a reviewing court to decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled.” Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir.1999). “Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [this Court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir.2002).

         The same level of deference is not owed to the Commissioner's conclusions of law. See Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir.1984). This Court must independently determine if the Commissioner's decision applied the correct legal standards in determining that the plaintiff was not disabled. “Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal.” Id., 748 F.2d at 112. Therefore, this Court first examines the legal standards applied, and then, if the standards were correctly applied, considers the substantiality of the evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir.1987). See also Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 504 (2d Cir.1998).

         Here, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, degenerative joint disease of the left shoulder, adjustment disorder with depression and anxiety, cognitive disorder, and substance abuse disorder. He found that plaintiff was capable of performing sedentary work, with the following limitations: no more than occasional performance of postural activities such as kneeling, squatting, crouching, and crawling; avoidance of walking on uneven terrain and up inclines, ramps and stairs; avoidance of overhead reaching with both arms, but able to grasp, hold, turn, raise and lower objects with either hand; ability to perform fine manipulation, to understand and follow simple instructions, perform simple tasks with supervision and/or independently, ability to maintain attention and concentration for simple tasks, ability to attend to a routine and maintain a schedule, relate and interact with others to carry out simple tasks, and handle reasonable levels of simple work-related stress. (Tr. 27-28). Because the ALJ found that plaintiff's limitations did not significantly erode her ability to perform a full range of sedentary work, he applied the Medical-Vocational Guidelines to find plaintiff “not disabled.”

         II. Applicability of Listing 1.04

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ should have found, at step 3, that her impairments met the requirements of a listed impairment - specifically, Listing 1.04, titled Disorders of ...

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