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Porter v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

June 19, 2018


          For the Plaintiff: Tiffany R. Porter, pro se

          For the Defendant: Sixtina Fernandez Social Security Administration Office of General Counsel Kathryn L. Smith, A.U.S.A. Office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of New York




         This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”), which denied the application of Tiffany Porter (“Plaintiff”) for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“SSDI”). Now before the Court is Defendant's motion (Docket No. [#10]) for judgment on the pleadings. The application is granted.


         The reader is presumed to be familiar with the facts and procedural history of this action, as summarized in Defendant's Memorandum of Law (Docket No. [#10-1]). The Administrative Record is exceptionally lengthy, comprising 1507 pages. This is due to the fact that this action dates back to October 26, 2007, when Plaintiff first applied for SSDI benefits. (T. 120-124).[1]

         For purposes of resolving the pending application, it is sufficient to note the following facts. Plaintiff, who was born in 1983, applied for SSDI benefits, claiming to have become disabled on July 9, 2005 (T. 122), due to “depression, arthritis in foot, knees, lower back, overweight, anemia.” (T. 156). Plaintiff's last-insured date was December 31, 2010. (T. 422). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially, and on September 1, 2009, following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision denying the claim (T. 14-27), after which the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T. 1-6). Plaintiff filed an action in this Court for a review of the Commissioner's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (No. 11-CV-6280 CJS), and on April 2, 2012, this Court issued a stipulated Order remanding this action to the Commissioner for, inter alia, development of the record and a new hearing, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), sentence four. (T. 520-521).

         On February 11, 2013[2] and April 16, 2013, a new hearing was conducted before an ALJ (T. 487-498, 419-486), and on July 18, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSDI benefits. (T. 527-553). On August 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed written objections to the ALJ's decision. (T. 556). On December 8, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the matter to a new ALJ for clarification of several points in the ALJ's decision, and for consideration of additional evidence that had been submitted to the Appeals Council. (T. 556-557).

         On May 12, 2015, a hearing was conducted before a new ALJ (T. 388-418), and on September 8, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim. (T. 361-377). That is, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time between the alleged onset date, July 9, 2005, and her last-insured date, December 31, 2010. (T. 361-362). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had a variety of severe impairments (T. 363), but that she nevertheless had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than a full range of sedentary work. (T. 366). In explaining that RFC determination, the ALJ indicated that he gave only limited weight to an opinion by Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Wadsworth, dated June 15, 2009, because it was inconsistent with other medical evidence of record. (T. 368-370). The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff had, in several instances, not followed through with treatment recommendations by her doctors.

         On the other hand, the ALJ gave significant weight to a later opinion from Dr. Wadsworth, dated July 17, 2012, which indicated that Plaintiff had far greater abilities than were reported in Wadsworth's first report. (T. 370). In that regard, the ALJ found that Wadsworth's second report was more consistent with the medical record as a whole. (T. 370).

         The ALJ went on to note that Dr. Wadsworth had later submitted two additional reports, dated November 6, 2012, and April 20, 2015, both of which the ALJ gave only little weight. (T. 371-372). In that regard, Dr. Wadsworth had indicated, on the first of these reports, that he was not trained to assess disability, and that he was merely reporting what the Plaintiff told him. (T. 926). In the second report, Wadsworth indicated that Plaintiff's ability to stand, walk or sit was essentially non-existent, that she would need to take multiple “20 minute” breaks per hour, and that with regard to Plaintiff's ability to pay attention, she would be off task “more than 20%.” (T. 973-974). It should be noted that these reports were purportedly assessing Plaintiff's condition as it existed long after her last-insured date.

         The ALJ also discussed reports from a consulting physician and psychologist, respectively, indicating that Plaintiff's impairments were less-than-disabling. (T. 372). The ALJ gave those reports “some weight” and “significant weight, ” respectively. (T. 372). The ALJ also gave significant weight to opinions submitted by Plaintiff's treating License Clinical Social Worker, even though she was “not considered to be an acceptable medical source.” (T. 373). Considering the medical evidence as a whole, the ALJ found that it showed Plaintiff's impairments were not as severe as she maintained. The ALJ further discussed Plaintiff's treatment history and her daily activities, and found that they did not support Plaintiff's claim of disability. (T. 374-375). Finally, the ALJ found that despite Plaintiff's limitations, she retained the ability to perform work, such as “addresser” and “table worker.” (T. 376-377).

         On October 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed objections with the Appeals Council. (T. 356). In that regard, Plaintiff filed the objections pro se, though she had been represented by an attorney up until that point.[3] Plaintiff raised two objections: First, that the ALJ had incorrectly stated that she had not been taking medications for depression; and second, that the “medical records indicate[d] that [she was] disabled.” (T. 356). With regard to the first objection, Plaintiff is apparently referring to the following statement in the ALJ's decision: “While the claimant was reportedly motivated in treatment, she refused to take medication because of anxiety about taking pills of any kind.” (T. 373). The ALJ attributed this statement to Plaintiff's treating social worker, Debra Greenfield, LCSW. (T. 373) (citing Ex. 34F). And in fact, Greenfield indicated, in a report dated May 22, 2013, that Plaintiff was resistant to taking any kind of medication: “She continues to be resistant to taking any medication as she has anxiety about taking pills of any kind.” (T. 954). In any event, on July 12, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's objections. The Appeals Council noted, for example, ...

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