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Hamm v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

July 27, 2018

JOHN WAYNE HAMM, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1] Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL J. ROEMER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c), the parties consented to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct all proceedings in this case. (Dkt. No. 16). Plaintiff John Wayne Hamm (“Hamm”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying him Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the following reasons, Hamm's motion (Dkt. No. 10) is denied and the Commissioner's motion (Dkt. No. 11) is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         On April 27, 2010, Hamm filed applications for DIB and SSI alleging disability since February 1, 2010 due to brain, neck, shoulder and leg damage as a result of a motor vehicle accident, problems with memory, lack of feeling below his knee, deafness in his left ear and blindness in his left eye. (See Tr. 303).[2] Hamm's motor vehicle accident occurred on July 7, 1999. (Tr. 531). However, he continued to work full-time from 1999 through his alleged disability onset date of February 1, 2010. (Tr. 107-08, 244, 304). Born on August 19, 1965, Hamm was 44 years old at the time of the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 130).

         Hamm's benefit applications were initially denied on June 25, 2010. (Tr. 119-20, 124). Hamm sought review of the determination, and a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William Weir on September 7, 2011. (Tr. 91-118). On February 23, 2012, ALJ Weir issued a decision that Hamm was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 124-31). Hamm sought review of the decision, and the Appeals Council remanded the case for further proceedings. (Tr. 136-40, 202). Specifically, the Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to consider whether Hamm has a severe mental impairment, to reassess Hamm's residual functional capacity, with particular attention to possible limitations related to vision loss in Hamm's left eye, and, if appropriate, to obtain additional evidence from a medical expert or a vocational expert. (Tr. 138-40).

         ALJ Weir conducted a second hearing on September 19, 2013. (Tr. 38-90). During the hearing, he took testimony from vocational expert (VE) Jay Steinbrenner and psychological expert (PE) Dr. Jerry Cottone. (Tr. 42-89, 230-37). On September 26, 2014, ALJ Weir issued a decision finding that Hamm was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 20-32). Hamm's request for review of the decision was denied by the Appeals Council on July 6, 2016. (Tr. 1-16). The ALJ's September 26, 2014 denial of benefits became the Commissioner's final determination, and the instant lawsuit followed.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Scope of Judicial Review

         The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is deferential. Under the Act, the Commissioner's factual determinations “shall be conclusive” so long as they are “supported by substantial evidence, ” 42 U.S.C. §405(g), that is, supported by “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “The substantial evidence test applies not only to findings on basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from the facts.” Smith v. Colvin, 17 F.Supp.3d 260, 264 (W.D.N.Y. 2014). “Where the Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings supported by evidence having rational probative force, ” the Court may “not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). Thus, the Court's task is to ask “‘whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached' by the Commissioner.” Silvers v. Colvin, 67 F.Supp.3d 570, 574 (W.D.N.Y. 2014) (quoting Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982)).

         Two related rules follow from the Act's standard of review. The first is that “[i]t is the function of the [Commissioner], not [the Court], to resolve evidentiary conflicts and to appraise the credibility of witnesses, including the claimant.” Carroll v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983). The second rule is that “[g]enuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve.” Veino, 312 F.3d at 588. While the applicable standard of review is deferential, this does not mean that the Commissioner's decision is presumptively correct. The Commissioner's decision is, as described above, subject to remand or reversal if the factual conclusions on which it is based are not supported by substantial evidence. Further, the Commissioner's factual conclusions must be applied to the correct legal standard. Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008). Failure to apply the correct legal standard is reversible error. Id.

         II. Standards for Determining “Disability” Under the Act

         A “disability” is an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner may find the claimant disabled “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” Id. §423(d)(2)(A). The Commissioner must make these determinations based on “objective medical facts, diagnoses or medical opinions based on these facts, subjective evidence of pain or disability, and . . . [the claimant's] educational background, age, and work experience.” Dumas v. Schweiker, 712 F.2d 1545, 1550 (2d Cir. 1983) (first alteration in original) (quoting Miles v. Harris, 645 F.2d 122, 124 (2d Cir. 1981)).

         To guide the assessment of whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner has promulgated a “five-step sequential evaluation process.” 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4). First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is “working” and whether that work “is substantial gainful activity.” Id. §404.1520(b). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant is “not disabled regardless of [his or her] medical condition or . . . age, education, and work experience.” Id. Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner asks whether the claimant has a “severe impairment.” Id. §404.1520(c). To make this determination, the Commissioner asks whether the claimant has “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. As with the first step, if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he or she is not disabled regardless of any other factors or considerations. Id. Third, if the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner asks two additional questions: first, whether that severe impairment meets the Act's duration requirement, and second, whether the severe impairment is either listed in Appendix 1 of the Commissioner's regulations or is “equal to” an impairment listed in Appendix 1. Id. §404.1520(d). If the claimant satisfies both requirements of step three, the Commissioner will find that he or she is disabled without regard to his or her age, education, and work experience. Id.

         If the claimant does not have the severe impairment required by step three, the Commissioner's analysis proceeds to steps four and five. Before doing so, the Commissioner must “assess and make a finding about [the claimant's] residual functional capacity [“RFC”] based on all the relevant medical and other evidence” in the record. Id. §404.1520(e). RFC “is the most [the claimant] can still do despite [his or her] limitations.” Id. §404.1545(a)(1). The Commissioner's assessment of the claimant's RFC is then applied at steps four and five. At step four, the Commissioner “compare[s] [the] residual functional capacity assessment . . . with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work.” Id. §404.1520(f). If, based on that comparison, the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Id. Finally, if the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work or does not have any past relevant work, then at the fifth step the Commissioner considers whether, based on the claimant's ...


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