United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
G. LARIMER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
appeals from a denial of disability benefits by the
Commissioner of Social Security (“the
Commissioner”). The action is one brought pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's
November 9, 2012 plaintiff filed applications for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II
of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. #7 at 19). Her applications
were initially denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which
was held on April 24, 2014 via videoconference before
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Marie Greener.
Id. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on
October 20, 2014, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled
under the Social Security Act. (Dkt. #7 at 19-30). That
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when
the Appeals Council denied review on May 19, 2016. (Dkt. #7
at 1-3). Plaintiff now appeals.
plaintiff has moved for judgment remanding the matter for
further proceedings, and the Commissioner has cross moved for
judgment dismissing the complaint, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ.
Proc. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's
motion (Dkt. #8) is granted, the Commissioner's cross
motion (Dkt. #12) is denied, and the matter is remanded for
of whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act requires a five-step sequential
evaluation, familiarity with which is presumed. See Bowen
v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986).
See 20 CFR §§ 404.1509, 404.1520. Where as
here a claimant's alleged disability includes mental
components, the ALJ must apply the so-called “special
technique” in addition to the usual five-step analysis.
See Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir.
Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is not disabled
must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence,
and if the ALJ has applied the correct legal standards.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Machadio v.
Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002). Substantial
evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It
means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
“The Court carefully considers the whole record,
examining evidence from both sides ‘because an analysis
of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that
which detracts from its weight.'” Tejada v.
Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting
Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 33 (2d Cir. 1997)).
Still, “it is not the function of a reviewing court to
decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled.”
Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999).
“Where the Commissioner's decision rests on
adequate findings supported by evidence having rational
probative force, [this Court] will not substitute [its]
judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Veino v.
Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002).
same level of deference is not owed to the Commissioner's
conclusions of law. See Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d
109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984). This Court must independently
determine if the Commissioner's decision applied the
correct legal standards in determining that the plaintiff was
not disabled. “Failure to apply the correct legal
standards is grounds for reversal.” Townley,
748 F.2d at 112. Therefore, this Court first examines the
legal standards applied, and then, if the standards were
correctly applied, considers the substantiality of the
evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d
Cir. 1987). See also Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496,
504 (2d Cir. 1998).
the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had the following
severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical
and lumbar spine, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and
adult attention deficit disorder. (Dkt. #7 at 21). The ALJ
found that plaintiff was capable of performing light work,
with the following limitations: capacity to lift and/or carry
up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently;
capacity to sit, stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour
workday, able to work at a low-stress job, defined as work
with routine daily tasks that don't significantly change
in pace or location, do not require more than simple
decision-making, and do not require rapid processing of
information, fast-paced tasks, or multi-tasking. (Dkt. #7 at
24). When presented with this RFC determination, impartial
vocational expert Linda N. Vause testified that plaintiff
could perform the positions of mail clerk, routing clerk and
order caller. (Dkt. #7 at 29).
contends that the ALJ's decision is based on legal error
and is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically,
plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff
can meet the lifting demands of light work, and that the
ALJ's RFC finding failed to properly account for
plaintiff's difficulties in maintaining attention and
concentration. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ committed
no legal error, and that substantial evidence in the record
exists to support her determination that plaintiff is not
The ALJ's Assessment of Plaintiff's Exertional
determined that plaintiff's spinal degeneration did not
prevent her from performing the exertional requirements of
light work with respect to lifting and carrying (up to 10
pounds frequently, and 20 pounds occasionally). (Dkt. #7 at
35). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give appropriate
weight to the opinions of her treating chiropractor, Nicholas
Frankie (“Frankie”), and a treating
physician's assistant, Jessica Smith
(“Smith”), and that in turn, that the ALJ's
RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt.
#12 at 12-13).
the Court notes that Dr. Frankie's and Ms. Smith's
opinions are the only two medical opinions of record which
purport to assess plaintiff's lifting capacity in
numerical terms. The opinion of consulting physician Dr. Look
Persaud, which the ALJ opted to credit instead, characterizes
plaintiff's lifting limitations only in generalized
terms, as “moderate.” While the Commissioner
correctly argues that the opinions of chiropractors and
physicians' assistants are not “medical
opinions” entitled to controlling weight, see
e.g., Diaz v. Shalala, 59 F.3d 307, 313 (2d
Cir. 1995) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2)), the ALJ
improperly discounted the fact that Ms. Smith's opinions
were cosigned by plaintiff's primary care physician,
internist Dr. Richard L. Parker. The ALJ's failure to
apply the ...