United States District Court, W.D. New York
MELANIE M. GRAVES, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Plaintiff Melanie Graves challenges the determination of an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that she is not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
(“the Act”). Plaintiff alleges that she has been
disabled since October 9, 2014, due to cervical disc
herniation with stenosis and myeloradiculopathy,
pseudo-arthritis, migraine headaches, depression, and
anxiety. Plaintiff contends that her impairments render her
unable to work, and thus, she is entitled to disability
benefits under the Act.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance
benefits on October 16, 2014, which the Commissioner denied
on January 30, 2015. Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing
before an ALJ. On August 17, 2016, ALJ Robert T. Harvey held
a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and
testified. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Michele
Erbacher also testified. At the time of the hearing,
Plaintiff was 44 years old, with a bachelor's degree, and
past work experience as a medical aide and Medicaid service
coordinator. The ALJ considered the case de novo
and, on September 6, 2016, issued a written decision denying
Plaintiff's application for benefits. The Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 14,
2016. Plaintiff filed the current action on January 11, 2017,
challenging the Commissioner's final
August 8, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure. (Docket No. 12). On October 10, 2017, the
Commissioner filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.
(Docket No. 15). Plaintiff filed a reply on October 23, 2017
(Docket No. 16), at which time this Court took the matter
under advisement without oral argument. For the following
reasons, Plaintiff's motion is granted, and
Defendant's motion is denied.
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 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). 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 an 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 Health & Human
Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process to determine whether an individual is
disabled under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920. The Supreme Court of the United States
recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v.
Yuckert, and it remains the proper approach for
analyzing whether a claimant is disabled. 482 U.S. 137,
140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987).
five-step process is as follows:
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) (quotations in original); see also 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520; Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d
72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999).
Although the claimant has the burden of proof on 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 is 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(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461
U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).
this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to
the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 9,
2014, the alleged onset date (R. at 17); (2)
Plaintiff's discogenic cervical spine, cervical
radiculopathy, status post C5-C6 facetectomy and
foraminotomy, C4-C7 fusion, migraine headaches, depression,
and anxiety are severe impairments within the meaning of the
Act (R. at 17); (3) Plaintiff does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meet or medically equal any
of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1 (R. at 17); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with
certain exceptions (R. at 19) and could not perform her past
relevant work (R. at 24); (5) Plaintiff could perform jobs
that exist in significant number in the national economy (R.
at 24). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was
not under a disability as defined by the Act during the
relevant period-October 9, 2014, through September 6, 2016.
(R. at 25).
Plaintiff contends that remand is required because the
ALJ's decision is fundamentally dishonest and is not
supported by substantial evidence. Each argument is discussed
Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ's decision is
fundamentally dishonest because the ALJ mischaracterized
Plaintiff's testimony about her daily living skills and
manipulated the VE's testimony. Specifically, Plaintiff
faults the ALJ for finding that she could lift a gallon of
milk and crochet as part of her daily living activities.
Plaintiff maintains that she can only lift a gallon of milk
with two hands and can only crochet ...