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Artinian v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 12, 2018

MICHELE ARTINIAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          The DeHaan Law Firm P.C. Attorney for the Plaintiff By: John W. DeHaan, Esq., Of Counsel

          United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York Attorneys for the Defendant By: Candace S. Appleton, Assistant United States Attorney

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION & ORDER

          ARTHUR D. SPATT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On August 8, 2016, the plaintiff, Michele Artinian (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 she is ineligible to receive Social Security disability insurance (“SSDI”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) 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 the Defendant's motion is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 25, 2013, the Plaintiff applied for SSDI benefits under the Act, alleging that she has been disabled since February 4, 2013. On August 7, 2013, the Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits alleging the same date of disability onset.

         Her claims were denied on August 12, 2013, and she requested a hearing eight days later. The Plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge April Wexler (the “ALJ”) on October 9, 2014. On November 25, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision in which she found that the Plaintiff was not entitled to SSDI or SSI benefits under the Act.

         The Plaintiff sought a review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request on June 1, 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 August 8, 2016, the Plaintiff filed the instant action. The parties submitted the matter as fully briefed to the Court on May 1, 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 Commissioner 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” as “[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.”); Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987) (describing review of the Commissioner's decision as a requiring “two levels of inquiry”). 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 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 the beneficent purposes of the [Social Security] Act'” (quoting Cruz v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 8, 11 (2d Cir. 1990) (internal citations omitted))). Alternatively, the Plaintiff seeks that the matter be remanded for a hearing before a different ALJ. See, e.g., Kolodnay v. Schweiker, 680 F.2d 878, 879-80 (2d Cir. 1982); Hartnett v. Apfel, 21 F.Supp.2d 217, 223 (E.D.N.Y. 1998). See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.940 (“[A]n administrative law judge shall not conduct a hearing if he or she is prejudiced or partial with respect to any party…”).

         The Plaintiff contends that she was deprived of a full and fair hearing because (1) the ALJ improperly determined that the Plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet the criteria in Listing 12.04; (2) the ALJ incorrectly assessed the medical evidence in violation of the treating physician's rule; and (3) the ALJ mischaracterized the Plaintiff's chronic fatigue syndrome. The Court will address each of these issues in turn.

         1. As To Whether Substantial Evidence Supports A Finding That The Plaintiff's Impairments Meet Or Equal The Requirements Of Adult Listed Impairment 12.04

         The Plaintiff claims that her bipolar I disorder meets or equals the requirements of Listed Impairment 12.04, Affective Disorders. The Defendant contends that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that her impairments do not meet or exceed any listed impairment, including 12.04. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concurs with the ALJ's determination.

         At step three, the ALJ is required to determine whether the Claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). This determination is based solely on objective medical evidence; a diagnosis is not sufficient in and of itself. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(d) (“Can your impairment(s) meet a listing based only on a diagnosis? No. Your impairment(s) cannot meet the criteria of a listing based only on a diagnosis. To meet the requirements of a listing, you must have a medically determinable impairment(s) that satisfies all of the criteria of the listing.”). If the impairment meets or medically equals one of the listed criteria, the claimant is considered disabled. If not, the ALJ is required to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the ability to perform physical or mental work, notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).

         In order to qualify as a listing, an impairment must satisfy all of the listing's diagnostic criteria. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530, 110 S.Ct. 885, 891, 107 L.Ed.2d 967 (1990) (“An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify [as a Listing]”). The Plaintiff is responsible for meeting her burden for each of the criteria in the relevant listing. See Medrano v. Colvin, No. 15-cv-3081, 2016 WL 5255877, at *14 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 21, 2016).

         Listing 12.04 states, in relevant part:

12.04 Affective disorders: Characterized by a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome. Mood refers to a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life; it generally involves either depression or elation.
The required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in C are satisfied.
A. Medically documented persistence, either continuous or intermittent, of one of the following:
1. Depressive syndrome, characterized by at least four of the following:
a. Anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities; or
b. Appetite disturbance with change in weight; or c. Sleep disturbance; or
d. Psychomotor agitation or retardation; or
e. Decreased energy; or f. Feelings of guilt or ...

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