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Midgett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. New York

December 18, 2017

ARCHIE ELLIS MIDGETT, III, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Stanton Guzman & Miller, LLP Attorneys for the Plaintiff, By: Stacey R. Guzman, Esq., Of Counsel.

          United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York Attorneys for the Defendant, By: Edwin R. Cortes, Assistant United States Attorney.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION & ORDER

          ARTHUR D. SPATT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On June 6, 2016, the Plaintiff Archie Ellis Midgett, III (the “Plaintiff” or the “Claimant”) commenced this appeal pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et seq. (the “Act”), challenging a final determination by the Defendant, Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Defendant” or the “Commissioner”), that he 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 Plaintiff's motion is granted in part and denied in part, and the Defendant's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 26, 2013, the Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under the Act, alleging that he had been disabled since October 24, 2009. The Plaintiff claims that he is disabled because of a motor vehicle accident which resulted in back, neck, shoulder and knee injuries.

         His claim was denied on August 23, 2013, and he requested a hearing. The Plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge April M. Wexler (the “ALJ”) on November 17, 2014. On January 8, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which she found that the Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

         The Plaintiff sought a review by the Appeals Council, who denied his request on April 4, 2016. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner upon the Appeals Council's denial of the Plaintiff's request for review.

         On June 6, 2016, the Plaintiff filed the instant action. The parties submitted the matter as fully briefed to the Court on April 24, 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 and responses presently raised by the Plaintiff and the Defendant. In this regard, references to the record are denoted as “R.”

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. The Standard For Benefits Under The Act

         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 can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person may only be disabled if his, “impairments are of such severity that he 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.” 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 promulgated by the Social Security Administration, 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 to prove that the Claimant is capable of working. Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008); Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77. See also Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996) (“If the claimant satisfies her burden of proving the requirements in the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the [Commissioner] to prove in the fifth step that the claimant is capable of working.”). “If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the [Social Security Administration] will not review the claim further.” Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24, 124 S.Ct. 376, 379, 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (2003).

         Under the five-step sequential evaluation process, the decision-maker decides:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a “residual functional capacity” assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014); Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 37 (2d Cir. 1996); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. When conducting this analysis, the ALJ must consider the objective medical facts, the diagnoses or medical opinions based on these facts, the subjective evidence of pain and disability, and the claimant's age, background, education and work experience. Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1037 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam).

         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.2d 475, 478 (E.D.N.Y. 1998) (Spatt, J.) (citing Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 179-81 (2d Cir. 1998)); accord Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)); 42 U.S.C. § 504(g). See also Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) (“Where there is substantial evidence to support either position, the determination is one to be made by the factfinder.”). The ALJ is required to set forth those crucial factors used to justify his or her findings with sufficient particularity to allow the district court to make a determination regarding the existence of substantial evidence. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984).

         Accordingly, “the reviewing court does not decide the case de novo.Pereira v. Astrue, 279 F.R.D. 201, 205 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004)). Rather, “the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive, ” id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), and therefore, the relevant question is not “whether there is substantial evidence supporting 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) (summary order) (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. Soc. Sec. Admin., 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (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 WL 31487903, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 29, 2002) (citing Levine v. Gardner, 360 F.2d 727, 730 (2d Cir. 1966)).

         “Substantial 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 v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127-28 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Halloran, 362 F.3d at 31); accord Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). “To determine on appeal whether an ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258 (citing Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488, 71 S.Ct. 456, 464, 95 L.Ed. 456 (1951)).

         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 an ALJ's decision.'” Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 178 n.3 (2d Cir. 2013) (summary order) (quoting Mongeur, 722 F.2d at 1040). This remains true “even if contrary evidence exists.” Mackey v. Barnhart, 306 F.Supp.2d 337, 340 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) (citing DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998)).

         The Court is prohibited from substituting its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if it might understandably have reached a different result upon a de novo review. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982); 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 Plaintiff asks this Court to remand the case back to the Commissioner for the calculation of benefits or, in the alternative, for further proceedings to remedy what the Plaintiff believes was a deprivation of a full and fair ALJ hearing. See Cruz v. Barnhart, 343 F.Supp.2d 218, 220 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (stating that before a court analyzes the merits of a Social Security case, “[t]he reviewing court ‘must first be satisfied that the claimant has had a full hearing under the regulations and in accordance with ...


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