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Martinez v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

December 21, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Edwin Martinez (“plaintiff”) appeals from a denial of disability benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”). The action is brought under the Social Security Act § 216(i) and 223(d) seeking to review the Commissioner's final determination.

         On December 14, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits which alleged disability beginning on January 16, 2012. His application was initially denied on February 14, 2013. (Dkt. #6 at 12). Plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was held on June 17, 2014 before the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Gregory M. Hamel. The ALJ rendered a decision concluding that plaintiff, a 48-year-old man with a General Education Development (GED) degree, was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Dkt. #6 at 12-25). That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on December 3, 2015. (Dkt. #6 at 1-3).

         Plaintiff moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the ALJ's decision was the product of legal error, and was not supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. #9). The Commissioner opposes the plaintiff's motion, and cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings, in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Dkt. #11).


         I. The ALJ's Evaluation

         An ALJ proceeds though a five-step evaluation in determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71, 106 S.Ct. 2022, 90 L.Ed.2d 462 (1986). At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See 20 CFR § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, then the ALJ continues to step two, and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is “severe, ” e.g., that imposes significant restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c). If not, the analysis concludes with a finding of “not disabled.” If so, the ALJ proceeds to step three.

         At step three, the ALJ examines whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. If the impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and meets the durational requirement (20 C.F.R. § 404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, the ALJ's analysis proceeds to step four, and the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the ability to perform physical or metal work activities on a sustained basis, notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e), (f).

         The ALJ then turns to whether the claimant's RFC permits him to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled, by presenting evidence demonstrating that the claimant “retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” in light of his age, education, and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir.1999) (quoting Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 604 (2d Cir.1986)). See also 20 CFR §404.1560(c).

         The Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ has applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means 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, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). “The Court carefully 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.'” Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 33 (2d Cir. 1997)). Nonetheless, “it is not the function of a reviewing court to decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled.” Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999). “Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [this Court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002).

         The same level of deference is not owed to the Commissioner's conclusions of law. See Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir.1984). This Court must independently determine whetehr the Commissioner's decision applied the correct legal standards in determining that the plaintiff was not disabled. “Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal.” Townley, 748 F.2d at 112. Therefore, this Court first examines the legal standards applied, and then, if the standards were correctly applied, considers the substantiality of the evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). See also Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 504 (2d Cir. 1998).

         Here, the ALJ determined that plaintiff: (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 16, 2012, the alleged onset date; (2) had severe impairments consisting of lumbar disc disease, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder (“ADD”), and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) (20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c)); (3) did not have impairment(s) that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments (Listing 12.04, 12.06, and 12.08); and (4) was capable of performing light work. (Dkt. #6 at 17-19). See 20 C.F.R. §404.1567(b).

         Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (Dkt. #6 at 19). The plaintiff cannot, however, climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. Id. Plaintiff is limited to routine and repetitive tasks, and cannot perform tasks that are require more than occasional contact or interactions with coworkers. Id. However, the plaintiff has a normal gait, and he has a full range of motion in his cervical spine, shoulders, elbows, forearms, wrist, fingers, hips, knees, and ankles. Id. at 22. In addition, the plaintiff does not need assistive devices to help his normal gait. Id. Furthermore, the plaintiff has the ability to maintain attention and concentration for simple tasks, and he does not have memory deficits. Id. at 24. Because the ALJ concluded that these limitations do not substantially erode the ability to perform light work such that the Medical-Vocational Guidelines can be applied (a conclusion that plaintiff does not challenge), he applied the Guidelines to find the plaintiff “not disabled.”

         II. The ALJ Did Not Rely On ...

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