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Richardson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

July 30, 2018

JANINE RICHARDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL A. TELESCA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Janine Richardson (“Plaintiff”), represented by counsel, brings this action under Titles II and XVI 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 applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). 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, Plaintiff's motion is denied and Defendant's motion is granted.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 1, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of August 8, 2009, due to back and neck problems, sciatica, and herniated disks. Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 86, 162-69. The claims were initially denied on May 17, 2013. T. 102-07. At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was conducted on December 11, 2014, in Buffalo, New York by administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Stephen Cordovani, with Plaintiff appearing with her attorney. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. T. 34-85. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 6, 2015. T. 14-33. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Appeals Council (“AC”), which denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 16, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. T. 8-10. This action followed.

         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 of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 8, 2009, the alleged onset date. T. 19. Although Plaintiff had worked as a babysitter since the onset date, the ALJ found this work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. Id.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following “severe” impairments: a lumbar disc bulge and superimposed left foraminal protrusion at ¶ 4-5, with the bulging disc having a subtle effect of the normal caliber thecal sac and a mild/moderate degree of left foraminal narrowing. T. 20. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff alleged she had a neck impairment, which was evident on a 2007 MRI examination. However, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not sought treatment for her neck pain or cervical spine problems, nor had she mentioned any such issues to her medical providers from the time she began seeking medical treatment for her other impairments in 2013 through the date of her hearing. He further found these impairments had no significant impact on Plaintiff's work-related functional abilities. Accordingly, the ALJ found these additional impairments to be non-severe. Id.

         In addition to Plaintiff's medically determinable physical impairments, the ALJ noted Plaintiff's attorney also alleged “a potentially severe psychological impairment” in his pre-hearing memorandum, based presumably on Plaintiff's visit to the emergency department with complaints of depression and back pain in May 2014, followed the next day by a psychiatric evaluation. Id. (referring to T. 237-38 and T. 263-320). Based on the record and Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ found Plaintiff made minimal efforts to obtain follow-up care for depression and failed to mention any mental health issues to her primary care providers. He further found Plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairment of depressive disorder did not cause more than a minimal limitation in her ability to perform basic mental work activities. Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff's depressive disorder to be non-severe. T. 21-22.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not singularly or in combination meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. T. 23.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with the following additional limitations: can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs; and can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as an assembler, production. T. 27. In the alternative, at step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony to find that there are other jobs existing in the national economy Plaintiff is also able to perform, including the representative occupations of marker, office helper, and cashier. T. 28. The ALJ accordingly found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act. T. 29.

         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) ...


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