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Sweet v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

February 23, 2018

DEBRA L. SWEET, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, plaintiff Debra L. Sweet (“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[1] (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion is granted to the extent that this case is remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with this Decision and Order, and the Commissioner's motion is denied.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI on April 30, 2012, alleging disability as of December 15, 2007 due to lower back problems, knee problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 141-46, 152-56. Plaintiff's application was initially denied. T. 92-94. At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Eric Glazer on January 8, 2014. T. 35-76. On May 5, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act. T. 17-30. On July 28, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision. T. 1-5. Plaintiff then timely commenced this 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 determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 30, 2012, the date of her application. T. 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of arthritis of the spine and knees and major depressive disorder and the non-severe impairments of obesity, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”), and dissociative disorder. T. 19-20. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any listed impairment. T. 20. The ALJ particularly considered Listings 1.02, 1.04, and 12.04 in reaching this determination. T. 20-21.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), with the additional limitation that she could frequently understand, remember, and carry out detailed tasks with no fast-paced production work. T. 22. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a telemarketer. T. 30. Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. Id.

         IV. Discussion

         A. Scope of Review

         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). Although the reviewing court must scrutinize the whole record and examine evidence that supports or detracts from both sides, Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted), “[i]f there is substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] determination, it must be upheld.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013). “The deferential standard of review for substantial evidence does not apply to the Commissioner's conclusions of law.” Byam v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 172, 179 (2d Cir. 2003).

         Here, Plaintiff makes the following arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to acknowledge and evaluate the opinion of Dr. Asra Rana; (2) the ALJ erred at step two by finding Plaintiff's PTSD, OCD, and obesity to be non-severe impairments; (3) the ALJ improperly assessed the opinion of treating nurse practitioner (“NP”) Susan Gunn; (4) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's work as a telemarketer constituted past relevant work is unsupported by substantial evidence, as is his conclusion that Plaintiff was capable of performing it; and (5) the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff was capable of the full range of medium work is unsupported by substantial evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that remand of this matter for further administrative proceedings is necessary.

         B. The ALJ Erred in Failing to Consider Dr. Rana's Opinion

         On June 10, 2013, Dr. Rana completed an employability assessment, disability screening, and alcoholism/drug addiction determination related to Plaintiff. T. 349-51. Dr. Rana stated that Plaintiff has osteoarthritis and hyperlipidemia. T. 349. She opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in her abilities to walk, stand, sit, lift, carry, push, pull, bend, see, hear, speak, use her hands, and climb. T. 350. Dr. Rana specifically opined that Plaintiff's morbid obesity and severe osteoarthritis would limit her ability to engage in ...

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