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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. New York

February 16, 2018


          Olinsky Law Group HOWARD D. OLINSKY, ESQ. EDWARD A. WICKLUND, ESQ. Attorneys for Plaintiff

          Social Security Administration JASON P. PECK, ESQ. Office of Regional General Counsel, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Region II Attorneys for Defendant



         Plaintiff Andrew Merton Williams brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Dkt. No. 1 (“Compl.”).[1] Plaintiff moves for a finding of disability, and the Commissioner cross moves for a judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. Nos. 15, 16. For the following reasons, the determination of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was born on December 15, 1971. T. 179.[2] Plaintiff has a “limited education, ” and completed tenth grade. Id. at 201. Plaintiff's only full-time job in the past fifteen years was as a food service maintenance worker at McDonald's, where he engaged in tasks such as cleaning cooling equipment, unloading trucks, and fixing appliances. Id. at 76-77, 193, 201. At McDonald's, plaintiff was on his feet for most of the work shift. Id. at 77. He regularly lifted objects weighing fifty pounds, and had to stop unloading trucks because it bothered his neck. Id. Plaintiff ceased employment at McDonald's at the alleged disability onset date. Id. At the oral hearing, plaintiff testified that he is 6'1'' tall and weighs 280 pounds. Id. at 92. He lives with his wife and four children, two of whom live there part-time. Id. at 76. Plaintiff generally stays at home in his recliner, which he described as his “best spot to sit.” Id. at 81. He attempts to do simple chores, and his children help him with the laundry. Id. at 84. Plaintiff can do the dishes, but needs to move and change positions to keep comfortable. Id. at 81. Plaintiff averages about ten “bad days” a month, and spends a majority of his days in his recliner or in bed. Id. at 83, 94. He is able to care for his personal hygiene, and a higher toilet and a shower stall were installed in his home to alleviate pain in his knee. Id. at 84. Plaintiff is able to drive with the help of a “pillow or a sweatshirt” on the side of his left leg “so it will not rest on the door.” Id. at 87.

         On November 19, 2013, plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. T. 179-89. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on August 14, 2013. Id. at 179. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on January 2, 2014. Id. at 106-110. Plaintiff requested a hearing, and a hearing was held on June 19, 2015 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Bruce S. Fein. Id. at 71-97, 115-16. ALJ Fein determined that plaintiff “ha[d] not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from August 14, 2013 through the date of this decision.” Id. at 53. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, id. at 48, making the ALJ's findings the final determination of the Commissioner. Id. at 6-13. Plaintiff commenced this action on April 6, 2017. See Compl.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a district court may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1388(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla, ” meaning that in the record one can find “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citations omitted)). The substantial evidence standard is “a very deferential standard of review . . . . [This] means once an ALJ finds facts, we can reject [them] only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.” Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotations marks omitted). Where there is reasonable doubt as to whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards, the decision should not be affirmed even though the ultimate conclusion reached is arguably supported by substantial evidence. Martone v. Apfel, 70 F.Supp.2d 145, 148 (N.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)). However, if the correct legal standards were applied and the ALJ's finding is supported by substantial evidence, such finding must be sustained, “even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's].” Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (citation omitted).

         B. Determination of Disability

         “Every individual who is under a disability shall be entitled to a disability . . . benefit . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). Disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). A medically-determinable impairment is an affliction that is so severe that it renders an individual unable to continue with his or her previous work or any other employment that may be available to him or her based on his or her age, education, and work experience. Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Such an impairment must be supported by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. § 423(d)(3). Additionally, the severity of the impairment is “based [upon] objective medical facts, diagnoses or medical opinions inferable from the facts, subjective complaints of pain or disability, and educational background, age, and work experience.” Ventura v. Barnhart, No. 04-CV-9018 (NRB), 2006 WL 399458, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2006) (citing Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1037) (2d Cir. 1983)).

         The Second Circuit employs a five-step analysis, based on 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, to determine whether an individual is entitled to disability benefits:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.
If he [or she] is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits his [or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him [or her] disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a “listed” impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.
Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he [or she] has the residual functional ...

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