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Hazelton v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

April 21, 2017

AMANDA L. HAZELTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          AMANDA L. HAZELTON Plaintiff, Pro Se.

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

          FERGUS J. KAISER, ESQ.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          GLENN T. SUDDABY, Chief United States District Judge.

         Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Amanda L. Hazelton (“Plaintiff”) against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. No. 13.) For the reasons set forth below, 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 1980, making her 31 years old at the alleged onset date and 34 years old at the date of the final Agency decision. Plaintiff has a high school education with an associate's degree, and past work as a convenience store clerk and floral assistant/florist-retail sales clerk. Plaintiff was insured for disability benefits under Title II until December 31, 2016. Generally, Plaintiff alleges disability consisting of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), bipolar disorder, depression, and social anxiety disorder.

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on May 10, 2012, alleging disability beginning November 12, 2011. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on September 7, 2012, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On June 19, 2015, Plaintiff appeared at a video hearing before ALJ Grenville W. Harrop Jr. (T. 23, 36.) On September 19, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 23-36.) On February 18, 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 his 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 November 12, 2011, the alleged onset date. (T. 24.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's arterial hypertension, hypothyroidism, asthma, bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, PTSD, unspecified personality disorder, and cannabis abuse in remission are severe impairments. (T. 25.) 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. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (the “Listings”). (T. 25-33.) More specifically, the ALJ considered Listings 4.00 (cardiovascular system impairments), 9.00 (endocrine disorders), 12.00 (mental disorders), 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and 12.08 (personality disorders). (Id.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform

light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1567(b) except frequent contact with others. In addition, the claimant has moderate limitations in her capacity to interact appropriately with others, maintain socially appropriate behavior without exhibiting behavioral excitement and function at a consistent pace in a work setting.

(T. 33.) In his discussion, the ALJ also indicated that he limited Plaintiff to “unskilled, simple and repetitive work activity.” (T. 33.) Fifth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has past work as a convenience store clerk (light, SVP 2) and floral assistant/florist-retail sales clerk (light, SVP 3), though the ALJ also found that Plaintiff is unable to perform this past work based on the restrictions in her RFC. (T. 34.) Sixth, and finally, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including housekeeping, plastic molding machine tender, and small products assembly worker. (T. 34-35.)

         D. The Parties' Briefings on Their Cross-Motions

         Plaintiff did not file a brief in this matter despite being afforded multiple opportunities to do so. (See generally Docket Sheet.) The Court is entitled to consider the record without the benefit of any arguments she might have put forth. General Order #18, at 7.

         Generally, Defendant asserts three arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Defendant argues that the ALJ's Step Three determination (finding Plaintiff did not meet or equal a Listed impairment and that Plaintiff had no restriction in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and no repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration) was supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. No. 13, at 16-20 [Def. Mem. of Law].) Second, Defendant argues that the RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. No. 13, at 20-23 [Def. Mem. of Law].) More specifically, Defendant argues that the opinion evidence from consultative examiner Dr. Hansen, State Agency psychological consultant Dr. Tzetzo, and treating physician Dr. Patel supported the ALJ's finding of moderate mental limitations and that consultative examiner Dr. Caldwell's opinion overall did not support a finding of disability. (Dkt. No. 13, at 20-21 [Def. Mem. of Law].) Defendant also argues that the ALJ's credibility findings made as part of assessing the RFC were supported by legally sufficient reasons and substantial evidence. (Dkt. No. 13, ...


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