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Marin v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

April 17, 2017

EVAN MARIN, Plaintiff,


          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 November 9, 2012, plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleged an inability to work since April 1, 2012. (Dkt. #8 at 20).[1] His application was initially denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held April 10, 2014 via videoconference before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Rosanne M. Dummer. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 25, 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 July 9, 2015 (Dkt. #8 at 1-3). Plaintiff now appeals.

         The plaintiff has moved, 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, the Commissioner's cross motion (Dkt. #15) is granted, plaintiff's motion (Dkt. #10) is denied, and the complaint is dismissed.


         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)). Still, “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.” Townley, 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 was capable of performing sedentary work, with the following limitations: lifting and carrying up to 10 to 15 pounds; sitting, standing and/or walking for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; avoidance of ladders, ropes, scaffolds and unprotected heights; no more than occasional climbing of ramps or stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; requiring the option to change positions from sitting to standing, briefly, on the hour; and requiring the use of a cane to ambulate. (Dkt. #8 at 23). When presented with this RFC, vocational expert Dian L. Haller testified that plaintiff could perform the positions of rental clerk, ticket seller, new account clerk, final assembler, and touchup inspector. (Dkt. #8 at 33).

         Plaintiff's treatment records reflect a history of complaints of back pain with antalgic gait (indicating pain on weight-bearing) offset by the use of a cane and/or walker, and treated with medication. The ALJ's finding concerning plaintiff's RFC is consistent with the medical evidence of record.

         Initially, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to sufficiently support her decision not to give controlling weight to the opinions of treating physiatrist Dr. Clifford Ameduri (Dkt. #8 at 401-09, 648-56). Dr. Ameduri's initial opinion, rendered November 28, 2012, opined that plaintiff could sit for no more than fifteen or thirty minutes at a time and could stand or walk for no more than five minutes at a time, required the use of a cane to ambulate, could never reach, push or pull with his hands, could never climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl, and would likely miss two or more days of work per month due to pain (although the same report curiously opined that plaintiff would have no issues with productivity due to pain, because pain is “not the problem”). (Dkt. #8 at 401-09). A second opinion by Dr. Ameduri, dated March 10, 2014, stated that plaintiff could sit for no more than 1-2 minutes at a time, could stand or walk for up to 15 minutes, no longer needed a cane to ambulate, could occasionally reach, push or pull with his hands, could occasionally climb or balance but could never stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl, would likely miss two or more days of work per month due to pain, and would see a greater than 20-25% decrease in productivity on “bad days.” (Dkt. #8 at 648-56). The only objective evidence cited to support those opinions was plaintiff's April 20, 2012 spinal MRI. (Dkt. #8 at 372-73, 392-93).

         A treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is well-supported by medical findings, and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 78 (2d Cir. 1999). If an ALJ opts not to afford controlling weight to the opinion of a treating physician, the ALJ must consider: (1) the examining relationship; (2) the extent of the treatment relationship; (3) medical support for the opinion: (4) consistency; and (5) the physician's specialization, along with any other relevant factors. 29 C.F.R. ยง404.1527(d)(2). An ALJ's failure to apply these ...

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