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Besseghini v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

December 27, 2017



          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, Janet Besseghini (“Plaintiff”) instituted this action pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”)[1] denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).

         II. Procedural Status

         On January 19, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB alleging disability beginning December 21, 2002, but she subsequently amended her onset date to January 1, 2010. (T.39, 91-92).[2] The claim was denied initially on March 12, 2012. (T.56-63). Plaintiff requested a hearing on March 20, 2011, which was conducted by Administrative Law Judge Grenville W. Harrop, Jr. (“the ALJ”) on April 4, 2013. (T.34-51). The ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim on May 21, 2013. (T.18-29). The ALJ found that, notwithstanding Plaintiff's multi-level lumbar disc herniations with spinal stenosis and radiculopathy, she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of light work, and could perform her past relevant work as a research assistant in a university library. (T.25, 28). On April 17, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T.1-6). Plaintiff then commenced this action.

         Plaintiff and Defendant have cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court will discuss the record evidence further below, as necessary to the resolution of the parties' contentions. For the reasons set forth herein, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         III. Discussion

         A. RFC Unsupported by Substantial Evidence (Plaintiff's Point I)

         As noted above, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff as having the RFC to perform the full range of light work. The Regulations provide that jobs at the light exertional level involve lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). “Since frequent lifting or carrying requires being on one's feet up to two-thirds of a workday, the full range of light work requires standing or walking, off and on, for a total of approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday.” Security Ruling (“SSR”) 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *5 (S.S.A. 1983).

         In arriving at his RFC finding, the ALJ assigned the “greatest weight” to the opinion of State agency medical consultant Dr. José Ruiz.[3] Dr. Ruiz completed a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment on May 22, 2012. (T.257-66). Based upon his review of the record, Dr. Ruiz opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift and carry up to 20 pounds; frequently lift 10 pounds; sit about 6 hours; stand about 6 hours; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; frequently balance; but could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (T.258-59). Dr. Ruiz further stated that Plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and hazards. (T.261). With regard to Plaintiff's pain level, Dr. Ruiz noted that it appeared to be under “fairly good” control and allowed her reasonably good functionality. (T.262). The ALJ noted that Dr. Ruiz's report was the only medical opinion in the record and was “consistent with the remainder of the record as a whole.” Plaintiff faults the ALJ for not specifically including the limits articulated by Dr. Ruiz with regard to climbing ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; stooping; kneeling; crouching; and crawling. Generally speaking, however, the ALJ is not required to incorporate every limitation assessed by a medical source into the RFC. See Miles v. Harris, 645 F.2d 122, 124 (2d Cir. 1981) (“Notwithstanding the apparent inconsistency between the reports of Dr. Delahanty and that of Dr. Elstein, we are unwilling to require an ALJ explicitly to reconcile every conflicting shred of medical testimony. . . .”); Pellam v. Astrue, 508 F. App'x 87, 89-90 (2d Cir. 2013) (unpublished opn.) (“There is no requirement that the agency accept the opinion of a consultative examiner concerning a claimant's limitations, and substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision not to adopt many of [the doctor]'s conclusions.”).

         Here, the limitations omitted by the ALJ are not, in fact, inconsistent with the RFC for a full range of light work. For instance, SSR 85-15, 1985 WL 56857 (S.S.A. 1985), observes that “[w]here a person has some limitation in climbing and balancing[4]and it is the only limitation, it would not ordinarily have a significant impact on the broad world of work.” Id. at *6. It is true that certain occupations, may be ruled out; e.g., the light occupation of construction painter, which requires climbing ladders and scaffolding, ” id., but that does not amount to a significant erosion of the occupational base for light work. With regard to the restriction imposed by Dr. Ruiz to only “occasional” stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, SSR 85-15 notes that “[i]f a person can stoop occasionally (from very little up to one-third of the time) in order to lift objects, the sedentary and light occupational base is virtually intact.” SSR 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *7. Therefore, the ALJ's failure to specifically mention these limitations did not have any effect on the ultimate RFC determination.

         Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to discuss the December 30, 2004 determination by New York State and Local Employees' Retirement Systems that she was “permanently incapacitated” from the performance of the duties of “Library Clerk 2.” (T.102). As the Commissioner notes, this document predates the alleged disability onset date by 6 years. Moreover, “[a] decision by any nongovernmental agency or any other governmental agency about whether [claimants] are disabled or blind is based on its rules and is not [the Commissioner's] decision about whether [claimants] are disabled or blind.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1504. This letter from the State therefore was of very limited probative value.

         Plaintiff argues that there was “no basis for the ALJ to have concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work, in light of her multilevel lumbar spine disc herniations with spinal stenosis and radiculopathy.” (Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law (“Pl's Mem.”) (Dkt #5-1) at 13). Plaintiff then goes on to cite all of the diagnostic testing results, such as the MRIs and CT scans, both preceding her alleged disability onset date and post-dating the expiration of her insured status. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ improperly interpreted these bare medical findings. See, e.g., Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 79 (2d Cir. 1999) (determining that the ALJ “as a lay person ” was “simply not in a position” to interpret the medical evidence). However, what Plaintiff overlooks is that the ALJ's RFC assessment is not inconsistent with the report of State agency review consultant Dr. Ruiz, which the ALJ assigned great weight. Therefore, the Court finds no evidence that the ALJ exceeded his professional bounds by “playing doctor.”

         B. Erroneous Credibility Assessment ...

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