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Zhang v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

June 22, 2018

SUWEN ZHANG, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner OF Social Security [1] , Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL A. TELESCA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         Suwen Zhang (“Plaintiff”), represented by counsel, brings this action under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner” or “Defendant”), denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Presently before the Court are the parties' competing motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, Plaintiff's motion is granted to the extent that the matter is remanded solely for calculation and payment of benefits. Defendant's motion is denied.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On September 27, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB, alleging disability beginning April 1, 2013. Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 222-29. The claim was initially denied on March 26, 2013, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. T. 96-132. An initial hearing was conducted on September 22, 2015, in Falls Church, Virginia by administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Roxanne Fuller, for which Plaintiff did not appear. T. 82-85. A second hearing was conducted on December 10, 2015, in Falls Church, Virginia by the same ALJ, with Plaintiff appearing via video conference with her attorney, along with a Mandarin interpreter and a Cantonese interpreter. T. 59-80.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 6, 2016. T. 39-58. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 24, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. T. 1-6. Plaintiff then timely commenced this action.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation promulgated by the Commissioner for adjudicating disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since her alleged onset date of April 1, 2012. T. 44. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the “severe” impairments of depression and schizophrenia. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. T. 45.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff as having the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567, with the following nonexertional limitations: able to perform simple, repetitive, routine tasks; no interaction with the public; and only occasional, superficial interaction with coworkers and supervisors. T. 46.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a hand packager. T. 53. At step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony to determine that, in addition to being able to perform her past relevant work, a person of Plaintiff's age, and with her education, work experience, and RFC, could perform the requirements of the following representative jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: Dishwasher (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) No. 318.687-010, unskilled, SVP 2, medium exertional level); Salvage laborer (DOT No. 929.687-022, unskilled, SVP 2, medium exertional level); and Hospital cleaner (DOT No. 323.687-010, unskilled, SVP 2, medium exertional level). T. 54. The ALJ accordingly found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, since the application date. Id.

         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). The district court must accept the Commissioner's findings of fact, provided that such findings are supported by “substantial evidence” in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (the Commissioner's findings “as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive”). “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) (quotation omitted). The reviewing court nevertheless 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). “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) (citing Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984)).

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff contends that remand for calculation and payment of benefits is warranted because the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Cui, and Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Dr. Kwasnik. In particular, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ: (1) failed to give proper weight to the disability-supporting opinions of Drs. Cui and Kwasnik; (2) failed to give good reasons for rejecting the disability-supporting opinions; and (3) failed to properly evaluate the objective evidence in Drs. Cui and Kwasnik's treatment notes. Plaintiff further contends the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's testimony under the applicable regulations. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ: (1) failed to apply ...


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