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Wolf v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

August 30, 2017

MARGARET M. WOLF, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, plaintiff Margaret M. Wolf (“plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”), seeking review of the final decision of defendant the Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1] (the “Commissioner” or “defendant”) denying her application for 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, plaintiff's motion is granted to the extent that this case is remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with this Decision and Order, and the Commissioner's motion is denied.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI on July 19, 2012, which was denied. Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 49-60, 109-14. At plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Robert C. Dorf on July 29, 2013. T. 25-43. On August 27, 2013, ALJ Dorf issued a decision in which he found that plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the act. T. 9-21. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision. T. 1-5. This action followed.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 19, 2012, the alleged onset date. T. 14. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of mood disorder, NOS, and substance abuse disorder.[2] Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, including the substance use disorders, met sections 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09 of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)). Id.

         “In 1996, Congress enacted the Contract with America Advancement Act . . .which amended the Act by providing that [a]n individual shall not be considered ... disabled ... if alcoholism or drug addiction would ... be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.” Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 123 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotations omitted). Accordingly, the ALJ next considered whether, if plaintiff stopped her substance abuse, the remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on her ability to perform basic work activities, and concluded that they would. T. 16. However, the ALJ also concluded that if plaintiff stopped her substance abuse, she would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that would meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that, if plaintiff stopped her substance abuse and considering all of plaintiff's impairments, plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) “except that [she] is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a low stress environment requiring no decision-making and no numerical production daily quota work. In addition, [she] is precluded from operating machinery, can only occasionally climb stairs, and can tolerate only occasional exposure to dusts, gases, fumes, and temperature extremes.” T. 17.

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had no past relevant work. T. 19. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform if she stopped her substance abuse. T. 20. Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled.

         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).

         I. The ALJ Failed to Develop the Record

         Plaintiff argues that remand of this case is required because the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record regarding plaintiff's impairments. In particular, plaintiff contends that the ALJ made no effort to obtain missing mental health records, despite having been put on notice that they existed. The Court agrees that the ALJ failed to adequately inquire into ...

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