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Cruz v. Commissioner of social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

July 31, 2018




         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, plaintiff Luis Enrique Cruz (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), seeking review of the final decision of defendant the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the Court are 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.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on November 27, 2009, alleging disability as of June 1, 2009 due to rheumatoid arthritis. Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 134-37, 158. Plaintiff's application was initially denied. T. 50-54. At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before administrative law judge (“ALJ”) William Weir on November 10, 2011, at which Plaintiff appeared pro se. T. 38-48. On April 26, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. T. 19-32. On June 25, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision. T. 1-4.

         Plaintiff timely commenced an action in this Court challenging the Commissioner's final decision and, on August 8, 2014, the Court issued a Decision and Order remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings. T. 616-17. On September 18, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the matter to the ALJ, instructing him to complete the administrative record, offer Plaintiff the opportunity for a hearing, and issue a new decision. T. 624-26.

         A new hearing before ALJ Weir was held on May 15, 2015. T. 504-557. Plaintiff appeared with his counsel, and testimony was taken from medical expert Dr. Anthony Levine and vocational expert (“VE”) Timothy Janikowski. After this hearing, Plaintiff's counsel submitted a brief to the ALJ in which she requested a medical expert with knowledge and experience in endocrinology (specifically related to diabetes) review Plaintiff's file. T. 790. Accordingly, a supplemental hearing was held on November 2, 2015, at which medical expert Dr. Dorothy Kunstadt and VE Rachel A. Duchin testified. T. 558-585.

         On September 29, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. T. 479-502. Plaintiff thereafter commenced this action.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In determining whether Plaintiff was disabled, the ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 27, 2009, the date of his application. T. 485.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of obesity, type II diabetes mellitus, and degenerative disc disease of L3-L4 and L5-S1. Id. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff's hypertensive heart disease, history of peripheral vascular disease, asthma, and substance abuse disorder were not severe impairments, and that he did not have medically determinable impairments of arthritis or joint dysfunction. T. 485-87.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any listed impairment. T. 487.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with the following additional limitations: can lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can occasionally carry 10 pounds; can sit for six hours total and stand for three hours total in an eight-hour workday; can sit and stand for no longer than 30 minutes each without interruption and must sit for at least one minute after standing for 30 minutes; can walk two hours total in an eight-hour workday, but for no more than 20 minutes at a time; must avoid walking on uneven surfaces; can occasionally crouch, stoop, bend, and climb stairs and ramps, but cannot do so repeatedly; cannot climb scaffolds, crawl, kneel, operate heavy machinery, work at unprotected heights, work in extreme cold, or reach above shoulder height with his right arm; and must have the opportunity to use the bathroom for one to two minutes every hour. T. 487-88.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. T. 493. At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) to conclude that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including the representative occupations of cashier, bench assembler, and inspector. T. 494. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act. T. 494-95.

         IV. Discussion

         A. 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). “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) (internal quotation omitted). Although the reviewing court 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) (citation omitted), “[i]f there is substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] determination, it must be upheld.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013). “The deferential standard of review for substantial evidence does not apply to the Commissioner's conclusions of law.” Byam v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 172, 179 (2d Cir. 2003).

         In this case, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence. In particular, Plaintiff contends that (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical opinions of record, (2) the ALJ failed to properly develop the record despite the presence of clear gaps in the medical evidence, (3) the ALJ failed to properly consider the limiting effects of Plaintiff's severe and non-severe impairments in combination, and (4) the ALJ mischaracterized ...

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