United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Plaintiff Tacara James challenges the determination of an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that she is not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
(“the Act”). Plaintiff alleges she has been
disabled since April 24, 2011, due to Schizophrenia,
vertebrogenic disorder, and chiari malformation with headaches.
Plaintiff contends that her impairments render her unable to
work, and thus, she is entitled to disability benefits under
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits and
supplemental security income on January 31, 2012, which was
denied on April 5, 2012. Plaintiff thereafter requested a
hearing before an ALJ on April 10, 2012. On April 2, 2013,
ALJ Nancy L. Pasiecznik held a hearing at which Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified. On April 10, 2015, ALJ
Donald T. McDougall held a second administrative hearing at
which Plaintiff again appeared with counsel and testified. At
the time of the second hearing, Plaintiff was 32 years old,
with a General Educational Development (“GED”)
degree, and past work experience as a counselor aide. The ALJ
considered the case de novo and, on April 23, 2015, issued a
written decision denying Plaintiff's application for
benefits. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review on November 21, 2016. Plaintiff filed the current
action on January 23, 2017, challenging the
Commissioner's final decision.
August 31, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure. (Docket No. 10.) On November 27, 2017, the
Commissioner filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.
(Docket No. 16.) Plaintiff filed a reply on December 18, 2017
(Docket No. 17), at which time this Court took the matter
under advisement without oral argument. For the following
reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied, and
Defendant's motion is granted.
court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not
determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856,
860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's
determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by
substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See
Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983);
Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979).
Substantial evidence is that which amounts to “more
than a mere scintilla, ” and it has been defined as
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct.
1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed
susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the
Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See
Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).
“To determine on appeal whether an ALJ's findings
are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court
considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both
sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the
evidence must also include that which detracts from its
weight.” Williams on Behalf of Williams v.
Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by
substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be
sustained “even where substantial evidence may support
the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's
independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the
[Commissioner's].” Rosado v. Sullivan, 805
F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court
must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable
deference and will not substitute “its own judgment for
that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have
reached a different result upon a de novo review.”
Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process to determine whether an individual is
disabled under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
416.920. The Supreme Court of the United States recognized
the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert,
and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a
claimant is disabled. 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287,
2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987).
five-step process is as follows:
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is
not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant
has a “severe impairment” which significantly
limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the
third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence,
the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1
of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment,
the [Commissioner] will consider her disabled without
considering vocational factors such as age, education, and
work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant
who is afflicted with a “listed” impairment is
unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the
claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth
inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe
impairment, she has the residual functional capacity to
perform her past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to
perform her past work, the [Commissioner] then determines
whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.
Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982)
(per curiam) (quotations in original); see also 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520; Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77
(2d Cir. 1999).
Although the claimant has the burden of proof on the first
four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the
fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5;
Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir.
1984). The final step is divided into two parts. First, the
Commissioner must assess the claimant's job
qualifications by considering her physical ability, age,
education, and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must
determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a
person having the claimant's qualifications could
perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460,
103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).
this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to
the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 24, 2011,
the alleged onset date (R. at 10); (2) Plaintiff's
Schizophrenia, vertebrogenic disorder, and chiari
malformation with headaches are severe impairments within the
meaning of the Act (R. at 10); (3) Plaintiff does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meet or
medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. at 10); (4) Plaintiff
retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and
416(c), with certain exceptions,  and that this RFC precluded
Plaintiff from performing any past relevant work (R. at 19);
and (5) considering Plaintiff's age, education, work
experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant
No. in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform (R. at
20-21). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was
not under a disability as defined by the Act during the
relevant period-April 24, 2011, through April 23, 2015. (R.
Plaintiff makes two challenges to the ALJ's decision.
First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's physical RFC
determination is not supported by substantial evidence
because the ALJ (1) failed to consider the medical opinions
of Drs. Huckell, Sterman, and Calabrese; (2) violated the
treating physician rule; and (3) interpreted raw medical
findings in fashioning his RFC assessment. Plaintiff filed
her application for benefits on January 31, 2012, claiming a
disability onset date of April 24, 2011. From the record, it
appears that Dr. Huckell treated Plaintiff from May 2009
through December 2009 (R. at 818-30, 832-35); Dr. Sterman saw
Plaintiff in December 2008 and again in June 2009 (R. at
876-78, 880-81); and Dr. Calabrese treated Plaintiff from
April 2009 through June 2010 (R. at 755-817). Courts have
found medical opinions provided prior to the alleged onset
date to be relevant in some situations, particularly where
there is scant evidence from the disability period. See
Binder v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 5:15-CV-738
(NAM), 2016 WL 4079533, at *4 (N.D.N.Y. July 29, 2016)
(collecting cases). But that is not the case here, as
Plaintiff has several treatment records from the relevant
period, as well as the March 16, 2015 opinion of Dr. Bennett,
all of which the ALJ took into consideration. (R. at 18-19.).
Because the record was complete, the ALJ was under no
obligation to look outside the relevant period for additional
evidence. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(d) (complete medical
history includes the 12 months preceding the month in which
application is filed); McManus v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 298 Fed.Appx. 60, 61 (2d Cir. 2008) (“no
error in the ALJ's decision to exclude additional
evidence proffered by” plaintiff where the
“evidence pre-dated the time period the ALJ was
required to consider under 20 C.F.R. §
404.1512(d)”); Kentile v. Colvin, No.
8:13-CV-880 MAD/CFH, 2014 WL 3534905, at *14 n.10 (N.D.N.Y.
July 17, 2014) (“The administrative record contains
treatment notes from other providers. However, the ALJ is not
compelled to consider or assign weight to treatment that
predates plaintiff's application for disability
benefits.”). Accordingly, there was no error in
excluding or discounting the opinions of Drs. Huckell,
Sterman, and Calabrese. See Williams v Colvin, 98 F.Supp.3d
614, 631 (W.D.N.Y. 2015).
With respect to Plaintiff's argument regarding the
treating physician rule, it is true that an ALJ is obligated
to give a treating source's medical opinion controlling
weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in your case
record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Here, Dr.
Bennett's assessment of Plaintiff's abilities was not
consistent with his own internal notes or with the remainder
of the record. For example, on March 16, 2015, Dr. Bennett
completed a physical residual functional capacity
questionnaire for Plaintiff. (R. at 1194-98.) He diagnosed
Plaintiff with chronic back pain and decreased range of
motion and opined that Plaintiff was limited to sitting one
hour at a time, standing fifteen minutes at a time, and
lifting less than ten pounds rarely. (R. at 1194-96.) This
marked limitation is contradicted by his own records, which
state that Plaintiff consistently reported that her back pain
was “relieved by over-the-counter medication.”