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Doctor v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

December 27, 2017

RENEE DOCTOR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Renee Doctor (“plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“defendant” or “the Commissioner”) denying her application for 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

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI alleging disability beginning March 1, 2007. Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 74, 117-22. Plaintiff's application was initially denied, and she timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which occurred on July 22, 2013, before ALJ David S. Lewandowski. T. 3-54, 140-49. At the hearing, plaintiff's attorney amended her alleged onset date to February 27, 2012. T. 34. On October 17, 2013, ALJ Lewandowski issued a decision in which he found plaintiff not disabled as defined in the Act. T. 10-29. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 26, 2015, rendering the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision. T. 1-3. Plaintiff subsequently commenced the instant action.

         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 found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 27, 2012, the alleged onset date. T. 15. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of neck and back pain, abdominal pain, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and asthma. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with the following additional limitations: can occasionally climb, push, and pull; must avoid pulmonary irritants; is able to perform semi-skilled tasks; must have “no or limited proximity to coworkers with occasional interaction with others”; no fast-paced production rate; and no multi-tasking. T. 17. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had no past relevant work. T. 23. At step five, the ALJ found 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. T. 24. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act. T. 25.

         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) (internal quotation omitted). “Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, [the district court] will not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). This deferential standard is not applied to the Commissioner's application of the law, and the district court must independently determine whether the Commissioner's decision applied the correct legal standards in determining that the claimant was not disabled. Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984).

         Here, plaintiff makes the following arguments in favor of her motion for judgment on the pleadings: 1) the ALJ's finding that plaintiff should have “no or limited proximity to coworkers with occasional interaction with others” was incomplete and impermissibly vague; 2) the ALJ failed to properly set forth plaintiff's limitations with respect to respiratory irritants; and 3) the ALJ impermissibly selectively rejected portions of the opinion of consultative physician Dr. Abrar Siddiqui without adequate explanation. The Court finds these arguments without merit for the reasons discussed below.

         A. The ALJ Adequately Defined Plaintiff's Non-Exertional Limitations

         1. The ALJ's Assessed Limitation of “No or Limited Proximity to Coworkers” was Appropriate

         The ALJ in this case found that plaintiff should have “no or limited proximity to coworkers with occasional interaction with others.” T. 17. In support of this conclusion, the ALJ explained that he had credited plaintiff's statement to consultative examiner Dr. Gregory Fabiano that she suffered from panic if she was around “too many people.” T. 22.

         Plaintiff's self-reported symptoms provide the only record support for the proposition that she is severely limited in her ability to work in proximity to others. Dr. Fabiano opined that plaintiff was fully capable of relating adequately with others and that her psychiatric limitations were not significant enough to interfere with her ability to function of a daily basis. T. 230. State agency review physician Dr. C. Butensky opined that plaintiff had only moderate limitations in her ability to work in coordination with or proximity to others. T. 251. Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist Dr. Jarod Masci declined to assess plaintiff's ...


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