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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. New York

August 2, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner OF Social Security, Defendant.




         Latice Johnson (“Plaintiff”), represented by counsel, brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) denying her application for 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 judgement 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 granted to the extent that the matter is remanded for further administrative proceedings and Defendant's motion is denied.


         On May 10, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI, alleging disability beginning August 31, 2012. Administrative Transcript (“T.”) 130-35. The claim was initially denied on July 17, 2013, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. T. 80-88. A hearing was conducted on June 18, 2015, in Buffalo, New York by administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Stephen Cordovani. T. 31-69. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. An impartial vocational expert (“VE”) also testified.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 17, 2015. T. 12-28. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals' Council. T. 29-30. On November 17, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. T. 1-6. Plaintiff then timely commenced this action.


         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 the application date. T.17.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the “severe” impairment of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with foraminal narrowing. Id. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments of glaucoma, right hip contusion, and hypertension were non-severe and created no significant work-related functional limitations. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ specifically considered Listing 1.04. T. 18.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff as having the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), with the following limitations: no bending to the floor; all work performed at waist level or higher; occasional ramps and stairs; no kneeling, crouching, crawling, or ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; alternate sitting and standing at will. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. T. 22. At step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony to find that, taking into account Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including the representative occupations of document preparer, printed circuit board assembly screener, and finisher. T. 23. The ALJ accordingly found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act. Id.


         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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