United States District Court, W.D. New York
MARY M. RYAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Mary M. Ryan 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 she has been
disabled since January 9, 2010,  due to bilateral knee pain,
left tennis elbow, brain lesion, bilateral knee arthritis,
migraines, neck pain, high blood pressure, plantar fasciitis,
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”),
and joint pain. Plaintiff contends that her impairments
render her unable to work, and thus, she is entitled to
disability insurance benefits under the Act.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on
January 19, 2012, which was denied April 26, 2012. Plaintiff
thereafter requested a hearing before an ALJ. On June 20,
2013, ALJ Timothy J. Trost conducted a hearing at which
Plaintiff appeared and testified. Plaintiff was represented
by counsel. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 51
years old, with some college education, and previous work
experience in administrative and retail positions. The ALJ
considered the case de novo, and on August 13, 2013,
issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application
for benefits. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review on November 25, 2014. Plaintiff filed this
current action on January 23, 2015, challenging the
Commissioner's final decision.
June 8, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. (Docket No. 8). On September 21, 2015, the
Commissioner filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.
(Docket No. 13). Plaintiff filed a reply on October 12, 2015
(Docket No. 14), at which time this Court took the matter
under advisement without oral argument. For the following
reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied, and
Defendant's motion is granted.
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 did not
engage in substantial gainful activity from January 9, 2010,
the alleged onset date, through March 31, 2011, the date last
insured (R. at 12); (2) Plaintiff's medically determinable
impairments were her left knee medial meniscus tear and
chondromalacia,  left ankle tendinitis, asthma, and COPD
(id.), but Plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that significantly limited her
ability to perform basic work-related activities for twelve
consecutive months and, therefore, she did not have a severe
impairment or combination of impairments (R. at 12-13).
Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have any severe
impairment, as defined by the Act, from January 9, 2010
through March 31, 2011, he stopped his evaluation at Step Two
and found Plaintiff not disabled. (R. at 17.)
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred at Step Two by
improperly evaluating her left knee disorders, asthma, and
obesity. “Step [T]wo of the disability evaluation, the
severity determination, is intended to ‘increase the
efficiency and reliability of the disability evaluation
process by identifying at an early stage those claimants
whose medical impairments are so slight that it is unlikely
they would be found to be disabled.'” Howard v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.Supp.3d 282, 295
(W.D.N.Y. 2016) (quoting Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
at 153) (internal punctuation omitted). “As with every
other step in the five-step evaluation process, failure to
meet the disability criteria of Step Two results in denial of
benefits with no opportunity to proceed to any later
step.” Dixon v. Shalala, 54 F.3d 1019, 1022
(2d Cir. 1995). The severe impairment evaluation
“allows the Secretary to deny a claim for benefits on
the basis of a relatively simple threshold determination of
the claimant's ability to perform basic, generically
defined work functions, ” id., but, “the
Second Circuit has strongly cautioned that the severity
standard . . . is to be applied ‘solely to screen out
de minimis claims.'” Pierce v.
Astrue, 946 F.Supp.2d 296, 309 (W.D.N.Y. 2013) (quoting
Dixon, 54 F.3d at 1030)).
impairment or combination of impairments is not
“severe” when medical and other evidence
establish only a slight abnormality that would have no more
than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.
20 C.F.R. § 416.921; SSRs 85-28, 96-3p, and 96-4p. To be
considered “severe, ” the impairment “must
have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous
period of at least 12 months, ” unless expected to
result in death. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909.
“The mere presence of a disease or impairment, or
establishing that a person has been diagnosed or treated for
a disease or impairment is not, by itself, sufficient to
render a condition severe.” Flanigan v.
Colvin, 21 F.Supp.3d 285, 300 (S.D.N.Y. ...