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Courtney v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

June 21, 2017

JOHN COURTNEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA, JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, John Courtney (“plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's motion is granted.

         II. Procedural History

         The record reveals that in May 2011, plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2011. After his applications were denied, plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before administrative law judge Grenville Harrop, III (“the ALJ”) on December 20, 2012. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 5, 2013. The Appeals Council denied review of that decision and this timely action followed.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         Initially, the ALJ found that plaintiff satisfied the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2012. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, diabetic retinopathy, and stage three kidney disease. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), “except that [he was] limited to frequently performing fine manipulations with his hands and [was] unable to operate dangerous machinery or drive a motor vehicle at night.” T. 24-25. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a retail sales associate. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and did not proceed to step five.

         IV. Discussion

         A district court may set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by “substantial evidence” or if the decision is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000).

         A. Reliance on Opinions of Consulting Examiners

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's reliance on two consulting examining opinions resulted in an RFC finding that was not supported by substantial evidence. Dr. Donna Miller completed the first examination on September 28, 2010. Plaintiff reported to Dr. Miller that he suffered from diabetic retinopathy and that he was scheduled to have right eye laser surgery in October. Plaintiff's corrected vision was 20/50 in the right eye and 20/25 in the left, with both eyes 20/25 on a Snellen chart at 20 feet. Otherwise, his physical examination was normal. Dr. Miller opined that plaintiff had “mild limitation with repetitive motion of his hands secondary to his neuropathy.” T. 228.

         Dr. Samuel Balderman completed a second consulting examination on July 5, 2011. Plaintiff reported that he had had laser surgery on both eyes, and was scheduled for cataract surgery the next week. Plaintiff demonstrated 20/40 vision in the right eye, 20/25 vision in the left, and both eyes 20/25 on a Snellen chart at 20 feet. Plaintiff's physical examination was otherwise normal. Dr. Balderman opined that plaintiff “appear[ed] to have mild visual impairment due to his diabetes, ” noting that he was “scheduled to have a surgical procedure on the right eye next week.” T. 298.

         The ALJ gave “substantial weight” to Dr. Miller's opinion, which he incorrectly stated was completed in November 2011. T. 26. The ALJ did not explicitly weigh Dr. Balderman's opinion, but noted that his “examination elicited virtually identical findings as those of Dr. Miller.” Id. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's mistake as to the date of Dr. Miller's examination was prejudicial, because plaintiff's alleged onset date was March 2011 and Dr. Miller's exam was performed in September 2010. Plaintiff further contends that the examinations of Drs. Miller and Balderman “were not reasonably tailored to the nature of [plaintiff's] conditions, and thus could not amount to substantial ...


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