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Tyran v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

July 30, 2018

KAROLINE ILISE TYRAN, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. SKRETNY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         1. Plaintiff Karoline llise Tyran challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision dated March 31, 2015, wherein the ALJ determined that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Plaintiff now contends that this determination is not based upon substantial evidence, and remand is warranted.

         2. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income on February 20, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2006. The claim was initially denied on June 11, 2011. Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing before an ALJ and, on January 8, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified in Buffalo, NY. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her disability onset date to February 20, 2013. The ALJ subsequently found, on March 31, 2015, that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed an administrative appeal and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on November 2, 2016, rendering the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff filed the instant action on December 19, 2016.

         3. Plaintiff and the Commissioner each filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 9, 13.) Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where material facts are undisputed and where a judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988).

         4. 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'v 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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). 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), cert, denied, 459 U.S. 1212 (1983).

         5. To determine whether the 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 Healths Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

         6. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

         7. This five-step process is detailed below:

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 his 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 him 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, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his 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); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         8. Although the claimant has the burden of proof as to 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 of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his 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(g); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-61, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

         9. The ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 20, 2013, the application date (R. 22)[1]; (2) Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: peripheral neuropathy and Raynaud's syndrome[2] (id); (3) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a recognized disabling impairment under the regulations (R. 23); (4) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) with certain exertional limitations[3] (R. 24); and (5) jobs exist in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform (R. 30).

         10. Plaintiff challenges the decision, contending that the RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because rejection of certain medical opinions created a gap in the record that the ALJ was obligated to address. This Court agrees.

         11. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has an RFC for light work with certain additional exertional limitations, but did not apply any non-exertional limitations or otherwise discuss Plaintiff's non-severe impairment of cognitive disorder. (R. 24.) An RFC determination specifies the "most [a claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations," 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545, and is reserved for the commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(2) and 416.927(e)(2). However, "[a]n ALJ's RFC assessment is a medical determination that must be based on probative medical evidence of record. Accordingly, an ALJ may not substitute his own judgment for ...


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