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Burnham v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

August 2, 2017

AMANDA ANN BURNHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL A. TELESCA, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Amanda Ann Burnham(“plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), claiming that the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “defendant”) improperly denied her applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) payments and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“SSA”). Currently before the Court are the parties' competing motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         On August 11, 2016, Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer issued a Report and Recommendation (the “R&R”) (Docket No. 14) recommending that defendant's motion be granted and plaintiff's motion be denied. As discussed further below, the Court agrees with Judge Roemer's findings and adopts the R&R in its entirety.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         When specific objections are made to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district judge makes a “de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). When only general objections are made to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district judge reviews it for clear error or manifest injustice. E.g., Brown v. Peters, 1997 WL 599355, at *2-3 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 22, 1997), aff'd, 175 F.3d 1007 (2d Cir. 1999). After conducing the appropriate review, the district court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).

         B. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff's applications for SSI and DIB were filed on April 1, 2011 and alleged disability beginning on March 5, 2011 due to a back disorder, knee injury, depression, and anxiety. Administrative Transcript (hereinafter “T.”) 87, 94, 134. Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on May 19, 2011. T. 56, 62. Following a hearing before administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Timothy M. McGuan, during which testimony was taken from plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ issued an unfavorable finding that plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA on November 30, 2012. T. 14-30.

         In his decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of broad-based herniation at ¶ 4-5 and compromise of the thecal sac, face joint arthropathy, mild stenosis with slight bulging of the L5-S1 disc with minor effacement of the thecal sac and early joint arthropathy, left knee suspicious tear along the posterior horn of the lateral meniscus with a tiny joint effusion, depression, and anxiety. T. 20. The ALJ further found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations: the option to sit or stand after one hour and no more than occasional interaction with the public. T. 22. On February 5, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, rendering it the Commissioner's final determination. T. 1-3. The present action ensued.

         C. Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R

         In response to the R&R, plaintiff raises three specific objections: (1) Judge Roemer incorrectly found that the ALJ properly developed Plaintiff's testimony; (2) Judge Roemer incorrectly found that the ALJ was not required to advise plaintiff to obtain a more detailed medical opinion; and (3) Judge Roemer incorrectly found that the ALJ's RFC finding adequately accounted for plaintiff's limitations in tolerating stress. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that these objections are without merit.

         1. Development of Plaintiff's Testimony

         Although “[t]he claimant has the general burden of proving that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the Act, ” “because a hearing on disability benefits is a non-adversarial proceeding, the ALJ generally has an affirmative obligation to develop the administrative record.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The ALJ's duty to develop the record is heightened when, as was the case here, the claimant is proceeding pro se. See Cruz v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 8, 11 (2d Cir. 1990). Under such circumstances, an ALJ is required to “scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all the relevant facts, ” and to “adequately . . . explore the ...


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