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Ryan v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

May 23, 2017

MARY M. RYAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          WILLIAM M. SKRETNY United States District Judge.

         1. 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, [1] 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.

         2. 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.[2]

         3. On 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.

         4. A 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).

         5. “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).

         6. The 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).

         7. The 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. § 404.1520.

         8. 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).

         9. In 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);[3] (2) Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments were her left knee medial meniscus tear and chondromalacia, [4] 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.)

         10. 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)).

         An 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. ...

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