United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Patricia Christine Kain challenges an
Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”)
determination that she was not disabled within the meaning of
the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff
alleges that she has been disabled since June 3, 2010 due to
bulging discs in her neck, osteoarthritis in her knees,
chronic migraines, and hemorrhaging of the right eye.
Plaintiff contends that her impairments render her unable to
work, and thus, entitle her to payment of Supplemental
Security Income (“SSI”) under the Act.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income on June 9, 2010,
which was denied on October 8, 2010. On October 14, 2010,
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. On September 8,
2011, ALJ Timothy M. McGuan conducted a hearing at which
Plaintiff appeared and testified. Plaintiff was represented
by counsel. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 32
years old, with an eighth grade education, and limited work
experience. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and
on October 12, 2011, issued a decision denying
Plaintiff's application for benefits. The Appeals Council
granted Plaintiff's request for review on March 9, 2012,
and remanded the case for further proceedings. On July 24,
2012, ALJ McGuan conducted a supplemental hearing at which
Plaintiff and a vocational expert appeared and testified.
Plaintiff was represented by counsel. On November 9, 2012,
the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application
for benefits. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review on June 9, 2014. Plaintiff filed the
current action on August 11, 2014, challenging the
Commissioner's final decision.
December 22, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on
the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. (Docket No. 6). On February 26, 2015, the
Commissioner filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.
(Docket No. 10). Plaintiff filed a reply on March 17, 2015
(Docket No. 11), at which time this Court took the matter
under advisement without oral argument. For the following
reasons, Plaintiff's motion is granted and
Defendant's motion is denied.
court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not
determine de novo whether an individual is disabled.
See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3);
Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the
Commissioner's determination will be reversed only if it
is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a
legal error. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46
(2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27
(2d Cir. 1979). Substantial evidence is that which amounts to
“more than a mere scintilla, ” and it has been
defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct.
1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed
susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the
Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See
Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).
“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 on Behalf of Williams v.
Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by
substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be
sustained “even where substantial evidence may support
the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's
independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the
[Commissioner's].” Rosado v. Sullivan, 805
F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court
must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable
deference, and will not substitute “its own judgment
for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably
have reached a different result upon a de novo
review.” Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process to determine whether an individual is
disabled under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § §
404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized
the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert,
and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a
claimant is disabled. 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287,
2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987).
five-step process is detailed below:
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is
not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant
has a “severe impairment” which significantly
limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the
third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence,
the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1
of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment,
the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without
considering vocational factors such as age, education, and
work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant
who is afflicted with a “listed” impairment is
unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the
claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth
inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe
impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to
perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to
perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines
whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.
Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982)
(per curiam) (quotations in original); see also Rosa v.
Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R.
Although the claimant has the burden of proof on the first
four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the
fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146
n.5; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir.
1984). The final step is divided into two parts. First, the
Commissioner must assess the claimant's job
qualifications by considering his physical ability, age,
education, and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must
determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a
person having the claimant's qualifications could
perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461
U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).
this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to
the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 9, 2010,
six days after the alleged onset date of June 3, 2010 (R. at
(2) Plaintiff's extensive facet arthropathy at ¶
4-S1, minimal disc bulges at ¶ 4-6 with no stenosis,
disc herniation at ¶ 4-5 with no significant stenosis,
mild joint effusion and mild tendonitis of the right knee
with no evidence of tear, and depressive disorder were
“severe” impairments within the meaning of the
Act (R. at 25); (3) Plaintiff does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meet or medically equal any
of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1 (R. at 27); (4) Plaintiff retains the residual
functional capacity to perform light work (which requires
lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time, with frequent
lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds, a
good deal of walking or standing, or sitting most of the time
with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls, 20
C.F.R. § 416.967(b)), except that she requires the
option to sit or stand after one hour (R. at 29); and (5)
Plaintiff can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy (R. at 38). Thus, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act,
at any time from June 9, 2010, through the date of the
decision. (R. at 39).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ made two errors in his
decision. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's physical
RFC evaluation was not supported by substantial evidence
because the record does not contain a medical opinion
addressing Plaintiff's exertional limitations, and the
ALJ was not qualified to assess Plaintiff's exertional
capacity himself. She contends that the medical evidence in
the record constituted bare medical findings and required
review from a medical expert, therefore, the ALJ had a duty
to develop the record and obtain a medical opinion that
addressed Plaintiff's exertional limitations.
determination is an assessment of the claimant's ability
to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained
basis, despite the presence of limiting impairments,
see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1),
416.945(a)(1), and is at the sole discretion of the ALJ after
weighing all relevant objective and subjective evidence in
the record, including the claimant's medical records,
acceptable medical source opinions, “other
source” opinions, and the claimant's testimony
regarding her alleged limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545
(noting that a claimant's RFC must be consistent with the
entire medical record). “Yet, an ALJ's examination
of the medical record is not plenary: ‘An ALJ is not
qualified to assess a claimant's RFC on the basis of bare
medical findings, and as a result an ALJ's determination
of RFC without a medical advisor's assessment is not
supported by substantial evidence.'” Englert v.
Colvin, 15-CV-564-FPG, 2016 WL 3745854, at *4 (W.D.N.Y.
July 8, 2016) (quoting Dailey v. Astrue, No.
09-CV-0099(A)(M), 2010 WL 4703599, at *11 (W.D.N.Y. Oct. 26,
2010)). When the record contains medical findings merely