United States District Court, W.D. New York
SUZANNE P. BERST, Plaintiff,
COMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
ELIZABETH A. WOLFORD JUDGE
Suzanne P. Berst ("Plaintiff) brings this action
pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act")
seeking review of the final decision of the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant," or
the "Commissioner") that denied her application for
disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title
II of the Act. (Dkt. 1). The Court has jurisdiction over this
action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the
Court are the parties' cross motions for judgment on the
pleadings (Dkt. 12; Dkt. 14) pursuant to Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(c). For the following reasons, Plaintiffs
motion (Dkt. 12) is denied and the Commissioner's motion
(Dkt. 14) is granted.
March 21, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB with the Social
Security Administration ("the SSA"). (Dkt. 6 at
75-76). She alleged disability beginning December
31, 2012, due to learning disability, anxiety and depression,
attention deficit disorder, and intense personality disorder.
(Id. at 76-77). On April 24, 2015, Plaintiff and a
vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified
before Administrative Law Judge William M. Weir ("the
ALJ"). (Id. at 39-74). On February 12, 2016,
the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not
disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Id. at
11-26). On April 26, 2017, the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's
determination the final decision of the Commissioner.
(Id. at 5-7). Thereafter, Plaintiff commenced this
action seeking review of the Commissioner's final
decision. (Dkt. 1).
District Court Review
reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited
to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were
supported by substantial evidence in the record and were
based on a correct legal standard." Talavera v.
Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012); see
also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Act holds that a
decision by the Commissioner is "conclusive" if it
is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere
scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."
Moran v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 108, 112 (2d Cir. 2009).
It is not the Court's function to "determine de
novo whether [the claimant] is disabled."
Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998);
see also Wagner v. Sec 'y of Health & Human
Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990) (holding that
review of the Secretary's decision is not de
novo and that the Secretary's findings are
conclusive if supported by substantial evidence).
must follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine
whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act.
See Parker v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71
(1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the
claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). If so, the
claimant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step
two and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or
combination of impairments, that is "severe" within
the meaning of the Act, meaning that it imposes significant
restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basic
work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the
claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of
impairments, the analysis concludes with a finding of
"not disabled." If the claimant does have a severe
impairment, the ALJ continues to step three.
three, the ALJ examines whether a claimant's impairment
meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment
in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4 (the
"Listings"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the
impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a
Listing and meets the durational requirement (20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1509), the claimant is disabled. If not, the ALJ
determines the claimant's residual functional capacity
("RFC"), which is the ability to perform physical
or mental work activities on a sustained basis,
notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).
then proceeds to step four and determines whether the
claimant's RFC permits the claimant to perform the
requirements of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(f). If the claimant can perform such
requirements, then he or she is not disabled. If the claimant
cannot, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step,
wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that
the claimant is not disabled. To do so, the Commissioner must
present evidence to demonstrate that the claimant
"retains a residual functional capacity to perform
alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the
national economy" in light of his or her age, education,
and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d
72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); see also 20 C.F.R. §
The ALJ's Decision
analyzed Plaintiffs claim for benefits under the process
described above. At step one, the ALJ was unable to determine
whether work activity that Plaintiff had engaged in since the
alleged onset date constituted disqualifying substantial
gainful work activity. (Dkt. 6 at 16-17). As a result, the
ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful work activity since the alleged onset date.
(Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has
the severe impairments of cervical and lumbar degenerative
disc disease. (Id. at 17). The ALJ also found that
Plaintiff has the following non-severe medically determinable
impairments: anxiety disorder, affective disorder, attention
deficit disorder, and a learning disability. (Id.).
At step three, the ALJ found that these impairments, alone or
in combination, did not meet or medically equal any listed
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retains the RFC for perform
medium workwith additional limitations.
(Id.). Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
"can only frequently stoop, carry, reach, push, and
pull." (Id.). At step four, the ALJ relied on
the VE's testimony and found that Plaintiffs RFC did not
prevent her from performing her past relevant
work. (Id. at 24-25). Notwithstanding
his step-four finding, the ALJ made an alternative step-five
finding. (Id. at 25). At step five, the ALJ relied
on the VE's testimony and found that Plaintiff can adjust
to other work that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy given her RFC, age, education, and work
experience. (Id.). Specifically, the VE testified
that Plaintiff could work as a "parts worker,"
"patient transporter," "housekeeper,"