United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
MICHAEL J. ROEMER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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). 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).
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).
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.
Scope of Judicial Review
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
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.
Standards for Determining “Disability” Under the
“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.
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.
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