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Czechowski v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

July 30, 2018

DARREN J. CZECHOWSKI, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          LAW OFFICES OF KENNETH HILLER KENNETH R. HILLER, ESQ. Counsel for Plaintiff

          U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OONA MARIE PETERSON ESQ., OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL - REGION II Counsel for Defendant

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          William B. Mitchell Carter U.S. Magistrate Judge

         On June 11, 2018, the parties consented, in accordance with a Standing Order to proceed before the undersigned. (Dkt. No. 19). The court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The matter is presently before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion is denied and the Commissioner's motion is granted.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1959. (T. 93.) He received a GED. (T. 186.) Generally, Plaintiff's alleged disability consists of emphysema, seizure disorder, depression, liver damage, sciatica, and numbness in his hands and feet. (T. 93.) His alleged disability onset date is January 4, 2014. (T. 177.)[1] His date last insured is December 31, 2018. (T. 20.) He previously worked as a machine operator. (T. 187.)

         B. Procedural History

         On January 26, 2014, Plaintiff applied for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits (“SSD”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. (T. 104.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied, after which he timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“the ALJ”). On June 28, 2016, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ, David J. Begley. (T. 64-92.) On August 26, 2016, ALJ Begley issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 15-31.) On January 31, 2017 the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-4.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         Generally, in his decision, the ALJ made the following five findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 20-27.) First, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018 and Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 4, 2014. (T. 20.) Second, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the severe impairments of seizure disorder and depression. (Id.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), alcohol abuse/alcohol induced cirrhosis, sciatica, and memory issues were non-severe impairments. (T. 21.)

         Third, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments located in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix. 1. (Id.) Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform:

work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: except [Plaintiff] should avoid ladders, ropes and scaffolds. [Plaintiff] should further avoid unprotected heights and open flames. [Plaintiff] is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks in a workplace free of fast pace production requirements, involving only simple, work-related decisions; with few, if any, work place changes.

(T. 23-24.) Fifth, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work. (T. 26.)

         II. THE PARTIES' BRIEFINGS

         A. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff makes three separate arguments in support of his motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues the ALJ's RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. No. 12 at 13-17.) Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to find Plaintiff's COPD, sciatica, and peripheral edema were not severe impairments at step two, and this error was not harmless because it infected the balance of the ALJ's analysis. (Id. at 18-19.) Third, and lastly, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff's testimony, including his subjective complaints of pain, and failed to make an adequate credibility finding. (Id. at 19-22.)

         B. Defendant's Arguments

         In response, Defendant makes three arguments. First, Defendant argues the ALJ properly determined Plaintiff's alleged COPD, sciatica, and peripheral edema were not severe. (Dkt. No. 17 at 18-21.) Second, Defendant argues the ALJ properly assessed and determined that substantial record evidence contradicted Plaintiff's subjective complaints. (Id. at 21-25.) Third, and lastly, Defendant argues the ALJ properly weighed the medical opinions of the record. (Id. at 25-28.)

         C. Plaintiff's Reply

         Plaintiff filed a reply to Defendant's memorandum. (Dkt. No. 18.) In general, Plaintiff asserts Defendant fails to meaningfully address the arguments and Defendant's arguments consist of mostly post hoc rationalizations for the ALJ's determinations. (Id.)

         III. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Standard of Review

         A 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 only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) (“Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.”); 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 evidence that amounts to “more than a mere scintilla, ” and 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 (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 the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts ...


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