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Michael C. v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.

United States District Court, N.D. New York

December 30, 2019

MICHAEL C., Plaintiff,
COMM'R OF SOC. SEC., Defendant.




         OF COUNSEL:

          STEVEN R. DOLSON, ESQ.



          Andrew T. Baxter U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Currently before the Court, is a Social Security action filed by Michael C. (“Plaintiff”) against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). This matter was referred to me, for all proceedings and entry of a final judgment, pursuant to N.D.N.Y. General Order No. 18, and in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, N.D.N.Y. Local Rule 73.1, and the consent of the parties. (Dkt. Nos. 4, 6). The parties have each filed briefs (Dkt. Nos. 9 and 10) addressing the administrative record of the proceedings before the Commissioner. (Dkt. No. 8.)[1]


         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1971, making him 43 years old on the amended alleged onset date and 46 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff reported completing the twelfth grade and past work as laborer, painter, and warehouse worker. At the initial level, Plaintiff alleged disability due to a spine impairment, asthma, and depression. Plaintiff had lumbosacral back surgery in 2007.

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff initially applied for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income on July 8, 2015, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2011. Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on October 6, 2015, after which he timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before ALJ Asad M. Ba-Yunus on June 5, 2017, at which a vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. (T. 27-63.) At the hearing, Plaintiff's attorney moved to amend the alleged onset date to July 30, 2014. (T. 34.) On September 8, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (T. 7-21.) On August 13, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-6.)

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. (T. 12.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2011, the alleged onset date.[2] (Id.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had severe impairments including low back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease and ruptured disc, status post lumbosacral back surgery, and asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). (Id.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (T. 13.) Specifically, the ALJ considered the 12.00 Listings (mental impairments). (Id.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work

except [he] may never climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, can no more than occasionally stoop, kneel, or crouch, []and only occasionally be exposed to unprotected heights, humidity, wetness, extremes of indoor cold and/or heat, and moving mechanical parts or dangerous machinery, and must avoid all pulmonary irritants.

(Id.) The ALJ determined, based on VE testimony, that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but identified several occupations existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (T. 16-17.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (T. 17.)

         D. Issues in Contention

         In his brief, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to make a ruling on Plaintiff's motion to amend the alleged onset date of disability. Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ relied on VE testimony in response to a hypothetical question that posited less restrictive limitations than those in the ALJ's RFC finding. (Dkt. No. 9, at 5-8.) Plaintiff also argues the ALJ did not properly apply the treating physician rule. (Id. at 8-10.)

         Defendant's brief argues the ALJ properly amended the disability onset date (Dkt. No. 10, at 5-7), and that any error relating to the ALJ's questioning of and reliance upon the VE constituted harmless error (id. at 7-10). Defendant also contends that the ALJ properly applied the treating physician rule and correctly found that Plaintiff could perform occupations existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at 7-12.) For the reasons stated below, the Court agrees with the Defendant and affirms the decision of the Commissioner.


         A. Standard of Review

         A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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 the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013); Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987). “Substantial evidence” is evidence that amounts to “more than a mere scintilla, ” and has been defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Selian, 708 F.3d at 417 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971)). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

         “To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.” 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 may not substitute “its own ...

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