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Falbru v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 30, 2018

DWAYNE FALBRU, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, plaintiff Dwayne Falbru (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), seeking review of the final decision of defendant the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and 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 applications for DIB and SSI in March 2013, alleging disability as of February 12, 2013 due to degenerative disc disease and lower back problems. Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 67, 164-70. Plaintiff's application was initially denied. T. 95-110. At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Brian Kane on February 26, 2015. T. 40-66. On April 6, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. T. 19-35. On March 21, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision. T. 1-6. This action followed.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In determining whether Plaintiff was disabled, the ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Initially, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2014. T. 24. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and resultant low back pain. Id. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff suffered from the non-severe impairments of migraines, gastroesophageal reflux disease, sleep problems, and depression. T. 24-25.

         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. 26. The ALJ particularly considered Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine) in reaching this determination. Id.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). T. 27.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a fast food worker. T. 29. In the alternative, at step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert to conclude that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. T. 29-30. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act. T. 30.

         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 contends that the ALJ's RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence. In particular, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly relied on his own lay opinion in determining that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work, rather than relying on competent medical opinion. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred at step two when he found that Plaintiff's migraines and depression were not severe impairments. For ...


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