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Townsend v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

November 14, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, Delois M. Townsend (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1] (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Presently 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. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is denied and Defendant's motion is granted.

         II. Procedural History

         On August 27, 2012, Plaintiff, a then-fifty-two year old former nurse's aide, filed for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI, alleging disability beginning March 3, 2008 due to an injury to her right arm resulting from a patient rolling onto her while she bathed him (T. 192-201, 216, 331).[2] Plaintiff's application was denied on January 26, 2013 (T. 148-53), and she timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). ALJ Robert T. Harvey held a hearing on May 14, 2014 (T. 43-89). At the hearing, Plaintiff indicated that she was seeking benefits from December 1, 2011, because she had already been awarded benefits, based on a prior application, for a closed period, from March 3, 2008 to November 30, 2011 (T. 46, 102-15). On November 4, 2014 the ALJ issued a decision in which he found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act as of December 1, 2011 (T. 17-35). On March 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review leaving the ALJ's decision as the final agency decision (T. 1-8). This action followed. The Court assumes the parties' familiarity with the facts of this case, which will not be repeated here. The Court will discuss the record further below as necessary to the resolution of the parties' contentions.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         Initially, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2016 (T. 22). At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2011 (T. 23). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had several severe impairments related to her right hand: de Quervain's tenosynovitis in the right thumb; right thumb carpometacarpal joint arthritis; status post right thumb trapeziectomy with interposition arthroplasty; right abductor pollicis longus tendon transfer to her right hand; light small finger Al pulley release and right thumb Al pulley release through separate incisions; and right carpal tunnel syndrome. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of right shoulder impingement syndrome; obesity; depression; and anxiety (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)) (Id.). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment (T. 23-25).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that, since December 1, 2011, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of light work, as that term is defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) (T. 25). More specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could lift and/or carry up to ten pounds frequently and up to twenty pounds on occasion with the left upper extremity, but cannot exceed ten pounds with the right upper extremity. Moreover, Plaintiff could sit for two hours in an eight-hour workday and stand and/or walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. However, Plaintiff could not “work near unprotected heights or around heavy, dangerous moving machinery, cannot climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds, and cannot work in areas with exposure to cold, temperature extremes or humidity” (Id.). Furthermore, Plaintiff had occasional limitations in the ability to (1) bend, climb, stoop, squat and kneel; (2) reach in all directions with the right upper extremity; (3) handle, finger, feel with the right hand; (4) push and pull with the upper extremities. Moreover, she has occasional limitations in the ability to deal with stress, but can perform the basic mental demands of unskilled work, including understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions, and the ability to respond appropriately to supervision, coworker and usual work situations and the ability to deal with changes in a routine work setting (Id.). Plaintiff also has frequent limitations in repetitive use of the right hand for fine motor activity, such as when the hand joints make repeated movements within a work cycle that is repeated over and over again (e.g., assembling a circuit board or packing boxes on an assembly line). Finally, Plaintiff could never crawl (Id.).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work (T. 33). At step five, the ALJ found, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform (Id.). Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled from December 1, 2011 through the date of his decision (T. 35).

         IV. Scope of Review

         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). “The deferential standard of review for substantial evidence does not apply to the Commissioner's conclusions of law.” Byam v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 172, 179 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984)).

         V. Discussion

         Here, Plaintiff makes the following arguments in favor of his motion for judgment on the pleadings: (1) the ALJ's physical RFC finding was not based on substantial evidence because the ALJ disregarded Plaintiff's limitations related to obesity; and (2) the ALJ's mental RFC was not based on substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's moderate limitations in dealing with stress. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds these arguments without merit.

         A. ...

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