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Cook v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 1, 2018

JENNINE S. COOK Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          LAW OFFICES OF CLARK & JORDAN-PUGH Attorneys for Plaintiff AMANDA JORDAN-PUGH, of Counsel

          JAMES P. KENNEDY ACTING UNITED STATES ATTORNEY Attorney for Defendant EMILY FISHMAN Assistant United States Attorney, of Counsel Federal Centre

          STEPHEN P. CONTE Regional Chief Counsel United States Social Security Administration Office of the General Counsel, of Counsel




         On June 22, 2016, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned. (Dkt. No. 11). The court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The matter is presently before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, filed by Plaintiff on February 15, 2016 (Dkt. 8), and by Defendant on April 14, 2016 (Dkt. 9). For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion is denied and the Commissioner's motion is granted.


         Plaintiff Jennine Cook (“Plaintiff”), brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner” or “Defendant”) decision denying her application for disability benefits for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title II of the Act, and Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Act, together (“disability benefits”). Plaintiff, born on November 6, 1973 (R. 149), alleges that she became disabled on July 17, 2012, when she stopped working as a result of spinal and bilateral knee impairments. (R. 161).

         Plaintiff's application for disability benefits was initially denied by Defendant on December 14, 2012 (R. 88), and, pursuant to Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Bruce R. Mazzarella (“Judge Mazzarella” or “the ALJ”) on February 20, 2014, in Buffalo, New York, where Plaintiff, represented by Courtney Quinn, Esq. (“Quinn”) appeared and testified. (R. -78). Vocational expert (“VE”) Jay Steinbrenner also appeared and testified. (R. 78-86). The ALJ's decision denying Plaintiff's claim was rendered on April 9, 2014. (R. 24-33). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, and on July 1, 2015, the ALJ's decision became Defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4). This action followed on August 28, 2015, with Plaintiff alleging that the ALJ erred by failing to find her disabled. (Dkt. No. 1).

         On February 15, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings (“Plaintiff's motion”), accompanied by a memorandum of law (Dkt. No. 8) (“Plaintiff's Memorandum”). Defendant filed, on April 14, 2016, Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings (“Defendant's motion”), accompanied by a memorandum of law (Dkt. No. 9) (“Defendant's Memorandum”). Plaintiff filed a reply to Defendant's motion on the pleadings on May 5, 2016 (“Plaintiff's Reply Memorandum”) (Dkt. No. 10). Oral argument was deemed unnecessary.


         A district court may set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence, or the decision is based on legal error. See 42 U.S.C. 405(g); 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.'” Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000).

         A. Standard and Scope of Judicial Review

         The standard of review for courts reviewing administrative findings regarding disability benefits, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34 and 1381-85, is whether the administrative law judge's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence requires enough evidence that a reasonable person would "accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). When evaluating a claim, the Commissioner must consider "objective medical facts, diagnoses or medical opinions based on these facts, subjective evidence of pain or disability (testified to by the claimant and others), and . . . educational background, age and work experience." Dumas v. Schweiker, 712 F.2d 1545, 1550 (2d Cir. 1983) (quoting Miles v. Harris, 645 F.2d 122, 124 (2d Cir. 1981)). If the opinion of the treating physician is supported by medically acceptable techniques and results from frequent examinations, and the opinion supports the administrative record, the treating physician's opinion will be given controlling weight. Schisler v. Sullivan, 3 F.3d 563, 567 (2d Cir. 1993); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d). The Commissioner's final determination will be affirmed, absent legal error, if it is supported by substantial evidence. Dumas, 712 F.2d at 1550; 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). "Congress has instructed . . . that the factual findings of the Secretary, [2] if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

         The applicable regulations set forth a five-step analysis the Commissioner must follow in determining eligibility for disability insurance benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. See Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 604 (2d Cir. 1986); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464 (2d Cir. 1982). The first step is to determine whether the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period for which benefits are claimed. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) and 416.920(b). If the claimant is engaged in such activity the inquiry ceases and the claimant is not eligible for disability benefits. Id. The next step is to determine whether the applicant has a severe impairment which significantly limits the physical or mental ability to do basic work activities as defined in the applicable regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). Absent an impairment, the applicant is not eligible for disability benefits. Id. Third, if there is an impairment and the impairment, or an equivalent, is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement, the individual is deemed disabled, regardless of the applicant's age, education or work experience, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d), as, in such a case, there is a presumption the applicant with such an impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.[3] 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382(c)(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. See also Cosme v. Bowen, 1986 WL 12118, at * 2 (S.D.N.Y. 1986); Clemente v. Bowen, 646 F.Supp. 1265, 1270 (S.D.N.Y. 1986).

         However, as a fourth step, if the impairment or its equivalent is not listed in Appendix 1, the Commissioner must then consider the applicant's "residual functional capacity" and the demands of any past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the applicant can still perform work he or she has done in the past, the applicant will be denied disability benefits. Id. Finally, if the applicant is unable to perform any past work, the Commissioner will consider the individual's "residual functional capacity, " age, education and past work experience in order to determine whether the applicant can perform any alternative employment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). See also Berry, 675 F.2d at 467 (where impairment(s) are not among those listed, claimant must show that he is without "the residual functional capacity to perform [her] past work"). If the Commissioner finds that the applicant cannot perform any other work, the applicant is considered disabled and eligible for disability ...

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