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Brown v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 26, 2017

MARK S. BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          IACONIS LAW FIRM PAUL F. IACONIS, ESQ. Counsel for Plaintiff

          U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL - REGION II LAUREN E. MYERS, ESQ. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Counsel for Defendant

          DECISION AND ORDER

          GLENN T. SUDDABY, Chief United States District Judge

         Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Mark S. Brown (“Plaintiff”) against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), are Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. No. 28, 32.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied and 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 1964, making him 46 years old at the alleged onset date and 50 years old at the date of the final agency decision. Plaintiff has a ninth or tenth grade education (both of which constitute a limited education under the applicable regulations), and past work as a flagger, forklift operator, and machine operator for a wire manufacturer. Plaintiff was insured for disability benefits under Title II until December 31, 2013. Generally, Plaintiff alleges disability consisting of lower back problems, neck problems, and depression.

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on July 8, 2010. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning November 19, 2009. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on September 14, 2010, after which he timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Plaintiff appeared at an initial hearing before ALJ Elizabeth W. Koennecke on November 15, 2011, as well as at subsequent hearings on January 26, 2012, and April 30, 2012. On May 16, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 195-211.) On April 3, 2013, the Appeals Council remanded for further consideration of the opinion evidence, Plaintiff's mental impairments, the residual functional capacity, and whether there was any other work in the national economy that Plaintiff remained able to perform. (T. 212-15.) Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to June 14, 2010, and appeared at hearings before the ALJ on September 25, 2013, and December 19, 2013. On March 27, 2014, the ALJ again issued an unfavorable written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 18-49.) On October 22, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-4.)

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         Generally, in her 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 June 14, 2010, the amended alleged onset date. (T. 22.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, mood disorder, and substance-use disorder are severe impairments, while his hypertension, hyperlipidemia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, overactive bladder, obesity, traumatic brain injury, headaches, and visual disturbances are not severe impairments. (T. 22-23.) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (the “Listings”). (T. 26.) More specifically, the ALJ considered Listing 1.04 (spinal impairments), 11.00 (neurological impairments), 14.09 (inflammatory arthritis), 12.02 (cognitive impairments), 12.04 (mood disorders), 12.05 (intellectual disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and 12.09 (substance addiction disorders). (T. 26-29.) 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 that the claimant could lift, carry, push, or pull up to 25 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; could occasionally bend at the waist; and could alternate between sitting and standing throughout the workday, but was otherwise capable of standing or walking, in combination, for 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday, and sitting for 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday. Additionally, the claimant retained the ability to understand and follow simple instructions and directions; perform simple tasks with supervision and independently; maintain attention and concentration for simple tasks; regularly attend to a routine and maintain a schedule; relate to and interact appropriately with others to the extent necessary to carry out simple tasks; handle reasonable levels of simple, repetitive work-related stress in that he can make occasional decisions directly related to the performance of simple tasks in a position with consistent job duties that does not require the claimant to supervise or manage the work of others; and required rare contact with the general public.

(T. 29.) Fifth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past work based on the restrictions in the RFC. (T. 46.) 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 cleaner, automatic car-wash attendant, and coin-machine collector. (T. 47-48.)

         D. The Parties' Briefings on Their Cross-Motions

         Generally, Plaintiff asserts five arguments in support of his motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ relied on selective evidence showing lesser impairment while ignoring other evidence that showed greater impairment. (Dkt. No. 28, at 19-20 [Pl. Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed error in failing to find that his traumatic brain injury and left knee impairment were severe impairments. (Dkt. No. 28, at 20-22 [Pl. Mem. of Law].) Relatedly, Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to include limitations resulting from these impairments in the RFC. (Dkt. No. 28, at 22-23 [Pl. Mem. of Law].) Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ arbitrarily substituted her own lay opinion for those of Plaintiff's medical practitioners. (Dkt. No. 28, at 23-31 [Pl. Mem. of Law].) Similarly, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in the weight she afforded to the treating and examining sources, including the opinions from Nurse Practitioner Behling, Dr. Martin, and Dr. Finger. (Dkt. No. 28, at 31-34 [Pl. Mem. of Law].) Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred in her explanation for the weight afforded to the opinion of the non-examining State Agency psychological consultant. (Dkt. No. 28, at 34 [Pl. Mem. of Law].) Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in applying the appropriate factors for assessing Plaintiff's credibility. (Dkt. No. 28, at 34-39 [Pl. Mem. of Law].) Fifth, and last, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to develop the record by failing to re-contact Plaintiff's treating physicians. (Dkt. No. 28, at 39- [Pl. Mem. of Law].)

         Generally, Defendant asserts five arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, in response to Plaintiff's second argument, Defendant argues that the ALJ correctly determined that Plaintiff's traumatic brain injury and knee impairment were not severe impairments, and asserting that, even though the ALJ found these impairments non-severe, she still considered all medically determinable impairments in her analysis of the RFC. (Dkt. No. 32, at 5-8 [Def. Mem. of Law].) Second, in response to Plaintiff's first and third arguments, Defendant argues that the RFC determination was supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. No. 32, at 8-17 [Def. Mem. of Law].) More specifically, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly considered all the evidence in the record, appropriately weighed the opinion evidence, and formulated a decision based on the record as a whole. (Id.) Third, in response to Plaintiff's fourth argument, Defendant argues the ALJ's credibility determination was supported by substantial evidence, asserting that the ALJ properly relied on inconsistencies in Plaintiff's reports throughout the record, his course of treatment and medication compliance, and receipt of unemployment benefits during the period Plaintiff alleged he was disabled, as well as that the ALJ properly rejected the testimony of Plaintiff's family due to inconsistencies and a lack of corroboration with the record. (Dkt. No. 32, at 17-19 [Def. Mem. of Law].) Fourth, in response to Plaintiff's fifth argument, Defendant argues that the record was appropriately developed and there was no legal requirement to re-contact any medical source for clarification or further information. (Dkt. No. 32, at 19-20 [Def. Mem. of Law].) Fifth, and last, Defendant argues that the ALJ's Step Five conclusion that there was a significant number of jobs Plaintiff could perform was supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. No. 32, at 20-21 [Def. Mem. of Law].)

         II. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Standard of Review

         A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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 the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) (“Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.”); accord 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 evidence that amounts to “more than a mere scintilla, ” and 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 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

         “To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court 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.” 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 may 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).

         B. Standard to Determine Disability

         The Commissioner has established a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The Supreme Court has recognized the validity of this sequential evaluation process. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287 (1987). The five-step process is as follows:

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. Under the cases previously discussed, the claimant bears the burden of the proof as Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982), accord, McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014). “If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further.” Barnhart v. Thompson, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Whether the ALJ Improperly Ignored Evidence in the Record When Making Her Findings

         After carefully considering the matter, the Court answers this question in the negative for the reasons stated in Defendant's memorandum of law. (Dkt. No. 32, at 8-10 [Def.'s Mem. of ...


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