United States District Court, W.D. New York
PAMELA S. HARMON, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
FRANK P. GERACI, JR. CHIEF JUDGE
S. Harmon brings this action pursuant to the Social Security
Act (“the Act”) seeking review of the final
decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security that
denied her applications for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act. ECF
No. 1. The Court has jurisdiction over this action under 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
parties moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). ECF Nos. 8, 12. For
the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's motion is
GRANTED and Plaintiff's motion is DENIED.
November 5, 2013, Harmon applied for DIB and protectively
applied for SSI with the Social Security Administration
(“the SSA”). Tr. 179-206. She alleged disability
since December 31, 2012 due to a traumatic brain injury
(“TBI”), neurological disorders, memory loss,
headaches and migraines, a left eye impairment, and hearing
loss. Tr. 226. On May 10, 2016, Harmon and a vocational
expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at a hearing
before Administrative Law Judge Bryce Baird (“the
ALJ”). Tr. 29-76. On September 6, 2016, the ALJ issued
a decision finding that Harmon was not disabled within the
meaning of the Act. Tr. 13-23. On January 27, 2017, the
Appeals Council denied Harmon's request for review. Tr.
1-4. Thereafter, Harmon commenced this action seeking review
of the Commissioner's final decision. ECF No. 1.
District Court Review
reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited
to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were
supported by substantial evidence in the record and were
based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera v.
Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (quotation
marks omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Act
holds that a decision by the Commissioner is
“conclusive” if it is supported by substantial
evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial
evidence means more than a mere scintilla. It means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Moran v.
Astrue, 569 F.3d 108, 112 (2d Cir. 2009) (quotation
marks omitted). It is not the Court's function to
“determine de novo whether [the claimant] is
disabled.” Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501
(2d Cir. 1998) (quotation marks omitted); see also Wagner
v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856,
860 (2d Cir. 1990) (holding that review of the
Secretary's decision is not de novo and that the
Secretary's findings are conclusive if supported by
must follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine
whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act.
See Parker v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71
(1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the
claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity. See
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not
disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines
whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of
impairments, that is “severe” within the meaning
of the Act, meaning that it imposes significant restrictions
on the claimant's ability to perform basic work
activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant
does not have a severe impairment or combination of
impairments, the analysis concludes with a finding of
“not disabled.” If the claimant does, the ALJ
continues to step three.
three, the ALJ examines whether a claimant's impairment
meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment
in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4 (the
“Listings”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the
impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a
Listing and meets the durational requirement (20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, the ALJ
determines the claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), which is the ability to perform physical
or mental work activities on a sustained basis,
notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).
then proceeds to step four and determines whether the
claimant's RFC permits him or her to perform the
requirements of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(f). If the claimant can perform such
requirements, then he or she is not disabled. If he or she
cannot, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step,
wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that
the claimant is not disabled. To do so, the Commissioner must
present evidence to demonstrate that the claimant
“retains a residual functional capacity to perform
alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the
national economy” in light of his or her age,
education, and work experience. See Rosa v.
Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (quotation
marks omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c).
ALJ's decision analyzed Harmon's claim for benefits
under the process described above. At step one, the ALJ found
that Harmon had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since the alleged onset date. Tr. 15. At step two, the ALJ
found that Harmon has the following severe impairments: TBI,
depression, anxiety, and cervicalgia. Tr. 15-16. At step
three, the ALJ found that these impairments, alone or in
combination, did not meet or medically equal any Listings
impairment. Tr. 16-17.
the ALJ determined that Harmon retains the RFC to perform
medium work with additional limitations. Tr. 17-20.
Specifically, the ALJ found that Harmon can lift and carry 50
pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; can sit for six
hours and stand and walk for four hours in an eight-hour
workday; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but cannot
climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally balance
and frequently kneel or crouch, but can never crawl; can
tolerate only moderate noise levels; cannot be exposed to
hazards like unprotected heights or moving machinery; and is
limited to jobs that do not require near and far visual
acuity with the left eye. Tr. 17-18. As to Harmon's
mental capacity, the ALJ found that she requires simple,
routine tasks that can be learned after a short demonstration
or within 30 days; cannot travel to unfamiliar places; can
occasionally interact with the public and frequently interact
with coworkers; and is limited to work that requires the same
tasks everyday with little variation in location, hours, or
tasks. Tr. 18.
four, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony and found that
Harmon cannot perform her past relevant work. Tr. 21. At step
five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony and found that
Harmon can adjust to other work that exists in significant
No. in the national economy given her RFC, age, education,
and work experience. Tr. 21-22. Specifically, the VE
testified that Harmon could work as an office helper, mail
clerk, and document preparer. Tr. 22. Accordingly, the ALJ
concluded that Harmon was not “disabled” under
the Act. Tr. 22-23.
argues that remand is required because the ALJ (1) violated
the treating physician rule; (2) relied on a fraudulent
opinion from a consultative examiner; and (3) erred at step
three in evaluating her impairments under the Listings. ECF
No. 8-1 at 10-17. These arguments are addressed in turn
Treating Physician Rule
argues that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule when
he gave “limited weight” to the opinion of her
treating physician Ann Wands, M.D. without providing the
requisite good reasons for doing so. ECF No. 8-1 at 10-12.
Harmon also asserts that the ALJ should have re-contacted Dr.
Wands to obtain additional support for her opinion.
Reasons The “treating physician rule” is “a
series of regulations set forth by the Commissioner . . .
detailing the weight to be accorded a treating
physician's opinion.” De Roman v. Barnhart,
No. 03 Civ. 0075 (RCC) (AJP), 2003 WL 21511160, at *9
(S.D.N.Y. July 2, 2003) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527);
20 C.F.R. § 416.927. Under this rule, the ALJ must give
controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion when
it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical
and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent
with the other substantial evidence in [the] record.”
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); see
also Green-Younger v. Barnhart,335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d
Cir. 2003). While an ALJ may discount a treating
physician's opinion if it does not meet this standard,
the ALJ must “comprehensively set forth [his] reasons
for the weight assigned to a treating physician's
opinion.” Halloran v. Barnhart,36 ...