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Jones v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

July 14, 2017

NICOLE T. JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Comm'r of Soc. Sec., [1] Defendant.

          OFFICE OF PETER M. HOBAICA, LLC Counsel for Plaintiff

          U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL-REGION II Counsel for Defendant

          B. BROOKS BENSON, ESQ.

          JUNE L. BYUN, ESQ. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney

          DECISION AND ORDER

          Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby Chief U.S. District Judge.

         Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Nicole T. Jones (“Plaintiff”) against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 16, 22.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is denied and Defendant's motion is granted.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1979. (Tr. 54, 843.) The highest level of education that she achieved was completing the ninth grade in high school. (Tr. 881.) Plaintiff's employment history consists of working as a cashier, sandwich maker, sales representative, temporary worker through a temporary employment and staffing agency, and winder / spinner / packer / doffer at a yarn mill. (Tr. 140, 144, 165.) Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of depression and bipolar disorder. (Tr. 831.) Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date is April 21, 2011, and her date last insured is June 30, 2011. (Tr. 154.)

         B. Procedural History

         On May 31, 2011, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Tr. 103, 154.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 49-51.) On October 24, 2013 (Tr. 877-903), and June 24, 2014 (Tr. 865-76), Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Elizabeth Koennecke. On August 26, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 6-21.) On November 9, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 2-5.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         Generally, in her decision, the ALJ made the following six findings of fact and conclusions of law. (Tr. 12-19.) First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 21, 2011, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 12.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's left forearm arteriovenous malformation is a severe impairment. (Id.) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairment does not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments located in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix, 1. (Tr. 15.) In so doing, the ALJ considered Listing 1.02B. (Id.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to (a) stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday, (b) sit for six hours in an eight-hour work day, (c) understand and follow simple instructions and directions, (d) perform simple tasks with supervision and independently, (e) maintain attention and concentration for simple tasks, (f) regularly attend to a routine and maintain a schedule, (g) relate to and interact with others in order to carry out simple tasks, and (h) handle work-related stress to the extent that she is able to make decisions directly related to the performance of simple tasks in any work environment. (Id.) In addition, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have any limitations in her ability to use her dominant upper right extremity to lift, carry, push, and pull, but that she cannot use her non-dominant upper left extremity to lift, carry, push, and pull. (Id.) Fifth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 19.) Sixth, and finally, the ALJ determined that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Id.)

         II. THE PARTIES' BRIEFINGS ON THEIR CROSS-MOTIONS

         A. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Generally, Plaintiff makes the following eight arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings.

         First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to order a consultative intelligence examination, despite record evidence establishing that she received special education through the ninth grade of school, for the following five reasons: (1) consultative psychological examiner Dennis Noia, Ph.D., opined that Plaintiff's “intellectual functioning is estimated to be in the borderline range”; (2) despite evidence that the Social Security Administration received records from Plaintiff's high school, which may provide information regarding her learning disabilities, there is no evidence that these records were included as an exhibit or considered by the ALJ; (3) record evidence demonstrates that Plaintiff suffers from significant cognitive deficits that likely affect her ability to engage in full-time unskilled work on a competitive basis; (4) the ALJ has an affirmative duty to develop the record, especially when, as here, there is record evidence that Plaintiff suffers from a cognitive disorder; and (5) an intelligence examination is necessary in order to properly assess whether Plaintiff's impairments meet Listing 12.05(C), particularly because the ALJ has already found that Plaintiff has a severe physical impairment. (Dkt. No. 16, at 20-23 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].)[2]

         Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record by not obtaining additional information regarding her left forearm arteriovenous malformation and knee condition. (Id. at 24.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that, rather than give reduced weight to the opinion of Vittorio Antonacci, M.D., because it was inconsistent with other record evidence, the ALJ should have ordered a functional assessment. (Id.) Similarly, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have ordered an assessment of Plaintiff's right knee condition from her treating physician rather than assume that the condition was temporary and could not meet the twelve month duration requirement. (Id.)

         Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to (a) find that her diagnosed depressive disorder is a severe impairment, (b) develop the record concerning her PTSD symptoms, and (c) properly evaluate her mental impairments. (Id. at 25.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that, although the ALJ acknowledged her diagnosis for various mental impairments, including mood disorder, PTSD, and anxiety disorder, the ALJ failed to explain why these impairments do not cause more than minimal limitation in Plaintiff's ability to perform basic mental work activities. (Id. at 25-26.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have requested clarifying information from psychologist Benedetta Melnick, Ph.D., regarding her evaluation, before giving significant weight to Dr. Noia's opinion that found Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 26.)

         Furthermore, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly assess her mental RFC because the ALJ did not discuss the impact her mental impairments have on her functional ability. (Id.) Plaintiff argues that, although the ALJ discussed the four factors set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1562(a), her discussion of those factors was not sufficiently detailed to constitute RFC findings. (Id.)

         Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed in her duty to develop the record when she did not obtain a functional assessment of Plaintiff's work abilities from a treating physician and, instead, gave significant weight to the opinions of Dr. Noia and consultative internal medicine examiner Rita Figueroa, M.D., when formulating her own RFC. (Id. at 26-27.)

         Fifth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ impermissibly substituted her own opinion for that of a physician when she concluded that Plaintiff can “stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday.” (Id. at 28.) Plaintiff argues that this conclusion is contrary to Dr. Figueroa's opinion that Plaintiff can stand/or walk for only a total of 20 minutes in an eight-hour work day and can sit for only five hours in an eight-hour work day. (Id.) Furthermore, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ implicitly found that she can occasionally stoop because light work, by its nature, requires the ability to occasionally stoop, which is contradicted by Dr. Figueroa's opinion that Plaintiff cannot stoop. (Id.)

         Sixth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to perform the required analysis under SSR 96-7p as well as provide an adequate narrative discussion that explained her reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's statements concerning her disabling physical pain, daytime fatigue, problems concentrating and paying attention, and depression as “not fully credible.” (Id. at 28-29.)

         Seventh, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to fully consider Plaintiff's hearing testimony, particularly the portions regarding her daytime fatigue, depression, and problems with mental demands, and instead focused on snippets of testimony that conformed to her conclusion that Plaintiff is able to perform “simple tasks.” (Id. at 29.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's assessment of her hearing testimony was not in accordance with relevant Social Security Regulations and remand is therefore required. (Id.)

         Eighth, and finally, Plaintiff argues that the hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert (“VE”) by the ALJ were not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's credibility by ignoring most of her testimony regarding the severity of her exertional and mental limitations. (Id. at 30.) Therefore, because the hypothetical questions were not supported by substantial evidence, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by relying on the VE's responses to those questions and ultimately concluding that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy which Plaintiff can perform. (Id.)

         B. Defendant's Arguments

         Generally, Defendant makes the following five arguments in opposition to Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings ...


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