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Conners v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

December 15, 2017


          OFFICE OF PETER HOBAICA, LLC Counsel for Plaintiff B. BROOKS BENSON, ESQ.



          William B. Mitchell Carter, U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         This matter was referred to me, for all proceedings and entry of a final judgment, pursuant to the Social Security Pilot Program, N.D.N.Y. General Order No. 18, and in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, N.D.N.Y. Local Rule 73.1 and the consent of the parties. (Dkt. Nos. 20, 21.)

         Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Nina Ann Conners (“Plaintiff”) against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), are the parties' cross- motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 14, 18.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is denied and Defendant's motion is granted.


         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1981. (T. 69.) She completed high school. (T. 224.) Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and anxiety. (T. 223.) Her alleged disability onset date is June 30, 2010. (T. 69.) Her date last insured is December 31, 2016. (T.) Her past relevant work consists of cashier, housekeeper, prepper, and residential counselor. (T. 225.)

         B. Procedural History

         On March 12, 2013, Plaintiff applied for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits (“SSD”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. (T. 81.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“the ALJ”). On March 5, 2014, and again on June 26, 2014, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ, David J. Begley. (T. 29-36, 37-68.) On October 27, 2014, ALJ Begley issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 9-28.) On May 25, 2016, the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-4.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         Generally, in his decision, the ALJ made the following five findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 14-24.) First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016 and Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2010. (T. 14.) Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of depressive disorder, NOS; anxiety disorder, NOS; and polysubstance abuse. (Id.) Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments located in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix. 1. (T. 15.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with non-exertional limitations. (T. 16.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poorly ventilated areas. (Id.) He determined Plaintiff should avoid hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, and open flames. (Id.) He determined Plaintiff could perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks; could work in a low stress environment defined as having no fixed production quotas, no hazardous conditions, requiring only occasional decision making, and only occasional changes in the work setting. (Id.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff could tolerate occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, and should have no direct interaction with the general public. (Id.) Fifth, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was incapable of performing her past relevant work; however, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (T. 23-24.)


         A. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff makes six separate arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to treating psychiatrist Stephen Hudyncia, M.D. that Plaintiff met Listing §§ 12.04, 12.06, and 12.08 and equaled Listing § 12.02. (Dkt. No. 14 at 13-17 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to the RFC opinion of Dr. Hudyncia. (Id. at 17-22.) Third, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in giving only “some weight” to the opinion of consultative examiner Cheryl Loomis, Ph.D. and “great weight” to non-examining consultant L. Hoffman, Ph.D. (Id. at 22-25.) Fourth, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in his credibility determination. (Id. at 25-28.) Fifth, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in relying on the vocational expert (“VE”) testimony as to jobs available to Plaintiff. (Id. at 28.) Sixth, and lastly, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff's obesity under SSR 00-3p and 02-19p. (Id. at 29.)

         B. Defendant's Arguments

         In response, Defendant makes four arguments. First, Defendant argues substantial evidence supported the ALJ's evaluation of the opinion evidence regarding Plaintiff's mental limitations. (Dkt. No. 18 at 7-16 [Def.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Defendant argues the ALJ adequately considered Plaintiff's obesity. (Id. at 17-18.) Third, Defendant argues substantial evidence supported the ALJ's evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective complaints. (Id. at 18-20.) Fourth, and lastly, Defendant argues substantial evidence supported the ALJ's step five determination. (Id. at 20-22.)


         A. Standard of Review

         A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) (“Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.”); Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979).

         “Substantial evidence” is evidence that amounts to “more than a mere scintilla, ” and has been defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

         “To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.” Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988).

         If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained “even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's].” Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute “its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review.” Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

         B. Standard to Determine Disability

         The Commissioner has established a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Supreme Court has recognized the validity of this sequential evaluation process. See Bowen v. ...

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