United States District Court, E.D. New York
NAOMI P. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Offices of Harry J. Binder and Charles E. Binder, P.C.
Attorneys for the Plaintiff
States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New
York Attorneys for the Defendant
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION & ORDER
D. SPATT United States District Judge
6, 2016, the Plaintiff Naomi P. Williams (the
“Plaintiff” or the
“claimant”)commenced this civil action pursuant
to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et
seq. (the “Act”), challenging a final
determination by the Defendant, Carolyn Colvin (the
“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”),
the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(the “Administration”) at the time of filing,
that she is ineligible to receive Social Security disability
before the Court are the parties' cross motions, pursuant
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Fed. R. Civ.
P.” or “Rule”) 12(c) for a judgment on the
pleadings. For the reasons that follow, the Plaintiffs motion
is denied in its entirety and the Defendant's motion is
granted in its entirety.
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on July
11, 2013 at age 59, alleging that she had been disabled since
October 26, 2012. The Plaintiff claimed that she was disabled
due to Sjӧgren's syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis,
irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), high blood
pressure, bipolar rapid cycling, reflux disease, high
cholesterol, bursitis, and depression.
claim was denied on October 18, 2013, and she requested a
hearing. The Plaintiff appeared with counsel before
Administrative Law Judge Alan B. Berkowitz (the
“ALJ”) on June 10, 2015. On June 22, 2015, the
ALJ issued a written decision in which he found that the
Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.
Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council, who
denied her request on December 18, 2015. The ALJ's
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner upon
the Appeals Council's denial of the Plaintiffs request
6, 2016, the Plaintiff filed the instant action. Both parties
submitted the matter as fully briefed to the Court on March
purposes of these motions, familiarity with the underlying
administrative record is presumed. The Court's discussion
of the evidence will be limited to the specific challenges
presently raised by the Plaintiff. In this regard, references
to the record are denoted as “R.”
The Applicable Law
the Act was amended effective March 27, 2017, the Court
reviews the ALJ's decision under the earlier regulations
because the Plaintiff's application was filed before the
new regulations went into effect. See Lowry v.
Astrue, 474 F. App'x 801, 805 n.2 (2d Cir. 2012)
(applying and referencing version of regulation in effect
when ALJ adjudicated plaintiff's claim); see also
Michael Barca, Plaintiff, v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
Defendant., No. 2:16-CV-187, 2017 WL 3396416, at *8 (D.
Vt. Aug. 8, 2017) (applying the regulations in effect when
the plaintiff filed his application); Alvarez v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 14CV3542(MKB), 2015 WL
5657389, at *11 n.26 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2015) (“[T]he
Court considers the ALJ's decision in light of the
regulation in effect at the time of the decision.”
(citing Lowry, 474 F. App'x at 805 n.2));
defines the term “disability” to mean an
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected
to last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 119
(2d Cir. 2008) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A))
(quotation marks omitted). In addition, “[t]he
impairment must be of ‘such severity that [the
claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but
cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience,
engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which
exists in the national economy.'” Shaw v.
Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131-32 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).
determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner
is required to apply the five-step sequential process set
forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Rosa v.
Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999). The claimant
bears the burden of proving the first four steps, but then
the burden shifts to the Commission at the fifth step.
Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77. First, the Commissioner
considers whether the claimant is presently working in
substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i); Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77. If the
claimant is not so engaged, the Commissioner next considers
whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”
that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to
do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(ii); Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77. If the
severity requirement is met, the third inquiry is whether,
based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an
impairment that is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations,
or is equal to a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1; Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77. If the claimant has such an
impairment, there will be a finding of disability. If not,
the fourth inquiry is to determine whether, despite the
claimant's severe impairment, the claimant's residual
functional capacity allows the claimant to perform his or her
past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv);
Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77. Finally, if a claimant is
unable to perform past work, the Commissioner then determines
whether there is other work, such as “light work”
discussed infra, that the claimant could perform,
taking into account, inter alia, the claimant's
residual functional capacity, age, education, and work
experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v);
Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77.
The Standard of Review
review of the denial of disability benefits is narrow”
and “[t]he Court will set aside the Commissioner's
conclusions only if they are not supported by substantial
evidence in the record as a whole or are based on an
erroneous legal standard.” Koffsky v. Apfel,
26 F.Supp. 475, 478 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 16, 1998) (Spatt, J.)
(citing Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 181 (2d Cir.
“the reviewing court does not decide the case de
novo.” Pereira v. Astrue, 279 F.R.D. 201,
205 (E.D.N.Y. 2010). Rather, “the findings of the
Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial
evidence, are conclusive, ” id., and
therefore, the relevant question is not “whether there
is substantial evidence to support the [claimant's]
view”; instead, the Court “must decide whether
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
decision. ” Bonet v. Colvin, 523 F.
App'x 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013) (emphasis in original). In
this way, the “substantial evidence” standard is
“very deferential” to the Commissioner, and
allows courts to reject the ALJ's findings “only if
a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude
otherwise.” Brault v. SSA, 683 F.3d 443,
448 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Warren v. Shalala, 29
F.3d 1287, 1290 (8th Cir. 1994) (emphasis in original)). This
deferential standard applies not only to factual
determinations, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn
from such facts.” Pena v. Barnhart, No.
01-cv-502, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21427, at *20 (S.D.N.Y. Oct.
29, 2002) (citing Levine v. Gardner, 360 F.2d 727,
730 (2d Cir. 1966)).
context, “[s]ubstantial evidence means ‘more than
a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.'” Burgess, 537 F.3d at 128
(quoting Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d
Cir. 2004)). An ALJ's findings may properly rest on
substantial evidence even where he or she fails to
“recite every piece of evidence that contributed to the
decision, so long as the record ‘permits [the Court] to
glean the rationale of [his or her] decision.'”
Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 178 n.3 (2d Cir.
2013) (quoting Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033,
1040 (2d Cir. 1983)). This remains true “even if
contrary evidence exists.” Mackey v. Barnhart,
306 F.Supp. 337, 340 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) (citing DeChirico v.
Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998), for the
proposition that an ALJ's decision may be affirmed where
there is substantial evidence for both sides).
Court is prohibited from substituting its own judgment for
that of the Commissioner, even if it might justifiably have
reached a different result upon a de novo review.
See Koffsky, 26 F.Supp. at 478 (quoting Jones v.
Sullivan, 949 F.2d 57, 59 (2d Cir. 1991)).
Application to the Facts Of This Case
Plaintiffs argues that the ALJ erred in affording less than
controlling weight to the Plaintiff's treating physician,
and affording little weight to all opinions; finding that she
has no severe mental impairments; that the ALJ failed to
properly determine her residual functional capacity
(“RFC”); and that the ALJ failed to properly
evaluate her credibility. In opposition, the Defendant
contends that each of the disputed decisions of the ALJ was
As to whether the ALJ Erred in Finding that the Plaintiff Has
No Severe Mental Impairments
Plaintiff asserts that in finding that the Plaintiff does not
have severe mental impairments, the ALJ erred in: rejecting
the opinions of every medical source in the record and
substituting his own judgment for that of experts; relying on
the Plaintiff's failure to seek mental health treatment;
and relying on the Plaintiff's ability to perform certain
activities of daily living. Conversely, the Defendant
maintains that the ALJ properly concluded that the
Plaintiff's mental conditions were not severe by relying
on the doctors' treatment notes. Further, the Defendant
states that any alleged error in determining whether the
Plaintiff's mental impairments are severe is harmless
because the mental impairments were considered in determining
the Plaintiff's RFC. The Court finds that there is
substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding, and
that any error would be harmless.
severe impairment is one “which significantly limits [a
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). By
contrast, logically, “[a]n impairment or combination of
impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit
[a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic
work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). Basic
work activities include:
(1) Physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting,
lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, ...