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Williams v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. New York

August 25, 2017

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Law Offices of Harry J. Binder and Charles E. Binder, P.C. Attorneys for the Plaintiff

          United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York Attorneys for the Defendant


          ARTHUR D. SPATT United States District Judge

         On May 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 insurance benefits.

         Presently 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The 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.

         Her 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.

         The 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 for review.

         On May 6, 2016, the Plaintiff filed the instant action. Both parties submitted the matter as fully briefed to the Court on March 13, 2017.

         For 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.”


         A. The Applicable Law

         While 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));

         The Act 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)).

         In 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.

         B. The Standard of Review

         “Judicial 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. 1998)).

         Thus, “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)).

         In this 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).

         The 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)).

         C. Application to the Facts Of This Case

         The 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 proper.

         1. As to whether the ALJ Erred in Finding that the Plaintiff Has No Severe Mental Impairments

         The 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.

         A 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, ...

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