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Lewis v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

February 26, 2018

CHERYL LEWIS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff 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 final determination.

         On 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).[1] 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.

         The 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 further proceedings.


         I. Relevant Standards

         Determination 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. 2008).

         The 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).

         The 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).

         Here, 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).

         Plaintiff 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 disabled.

         II. The ALJ's Assessment of Plaintiff's Exertional Limitations

         The ALJ 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).

         Initially, 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. ยง 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 ...

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