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Nieves v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. New York

December 30, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Pamela K. Chen United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Steven Nieves brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties have cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkts. 12, 17.) Plaintiff seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision and an immediate award of benefits, or alternatively, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Plaintiff's Brief (“Pl.'s Br.”), Dkt. 12-1, at 20.) The Commissioner seeks affirmation of the denial of Plaintiff's claims. (Defendant's Brief (“Def.'s Br.”), Dkt. 18, at 31.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and denies the Commissioner's motion. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         I. Procedural History

         On February 11, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, claiming that he has been disabled since August 3, 2012. (Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”[2]), Dkt. 19, at 165-66.) The claim was initially denied on June 19, 2014, and Plaintiff requested and appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on May 10, 2016. (Id. at 20.) By decision dated October 5, 2016, ALJ Patrick Kilgannon found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from August 3, 2012, his alleged onset date, through the date of the ALJ decision.[3] (Id. at 34.) On November 30, 2016, Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ decision, which was denied by the SSA Appeals Council on November 27, 2017. (Id. at 5.) This appeal timely followed.[4]

         II. The ALJ Decision

         In evaluating disability claims, the ALJ must adhere to a five-step inquiry. The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps in the inquiry; the Commissioner bears the burden in the final step. Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012). First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the answer is yes, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the ALJ proceeds to the second step to determine whether the claimant suffers from a “severe” impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is determined to be severe when it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the impairment is not severe, then the claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. However, if the impairment is severe, the ALJ proceeds to the third step, which considers whether the impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Act's regulations (the “Listings”). 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ must determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) before continuing with steps four and five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The claimant's RFC is an assessment which considers the claimant's “impairment(s), and any related symptoms . . . [which] may cause physical and mental limitations that affect what [the claimant] can do in the work setting.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ will then use the RFC determination in step four to determine if the claimant can perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the answer is yes, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise, the ALJ will proceed to step five to determine whether the claimant, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, has the capacity to perform other substantial gainful work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the answer is yes, the claimant is not disabled; otherwise, the claimant is disabled and is entitled to benefits. Id.

         The ALJ's October 5, 2016 decision followed the five-step evaluation process established by the SSA to determine whether an individual is disabled. (Tr. at 21-22.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 3, 2012. (Id. at 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “cervical degenerative disc disease status-post August 3, 2012 anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) procedure; cervical radiculopathy; chronic low back pain with right-sided lumbar radiculopathy; left shoulder impingement and bursitis; and, obesity.” (Id. at 22 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c))). However, the ALJ found that, although Plaintiff satisfied his burden in the first two steps, he failed on the third step, and that none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled the severity of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (Id. at 23.)

         Having determined that Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments in the Listings, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's RFC, finding that Plaintiff was able to perform a “range of light work[5] as defined in 20 [C.F.R.] 404.1567(b).” (Id. at 24.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can sit for six hours, stand and/or walk for six hours, and lift and/or carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently. (Id. at 24.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff can perform past relevant work as a detective because “[t]his work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity.” (Id. at 32.) However, the ALJ determined at step five that, even if Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work, based on the vocational expert's testimony and Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, “there are other jobs existing in the national economy that he is also able to perform.” (Id. at 33.) The ALJ subsequently concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged onset date of August 3, 2012 through the date of the ALJ decision, October 5, 2016, as defined in the Social Security Act. (Id. at 34.)


         Unsuccessful claimants for disability benefits under the Social Security Act may bring an action in federal district court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of their benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, the Court's role 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, 697 F.3d at 151 (internal quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). In determining whether the Commissioner's findings were based upon substantial evidence, “the reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Court “defer[s] to the Commissioner's resolution of conflicting evidence.” Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012). If there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's findings as to any fact, those findings are conclusive and must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 175-76 (2d Cir. 2013).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical evidence and his decision is therefore not based upon substantial evidence. (Pl.'s Br., Dkt. 12-1 at 14.) More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by affording significant weight to the testimony of the non-examining consulting physician while assigning limited weight to the treating ...

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