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Tahira H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. New York

January 2, 2020

TAHIRA H., Plaintiff,


          LAW OFFICES OF KENNETH HILLER, PLLC Attorneys for Plaintiff


         OF COUNSEL:

          KENNETH R. HILLER, ESQ., JUSTIN M. GOLDSTEIN, ESQ., SIXTINA FERNANDEZ, ESQ. Special Ass't United States Attorney




         Plaintiff Tahira H.[1] ("plaintiff" or "claimant") brings this action seeking review of a final decision by defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "defendant") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Defendant has filed a certified copy of the Administrative Record and both parties have briefed the matter.[2] Plaintiff's appeal will be considered on the basis of these submissions without oral argument.


         On October 20, 2014, plaintiff filed an application for DIB alleging that her back injury, shoulder injury, arthritis, knee problem, and depression rendered her disabled beginning on September 26, 2014. R. at 170-71, 187-99.[3]

         On March 13, 2015, the Commissioner denied plaintiff's application for benefits. R. at 88-91. Thereafter, at plaintiff's request, defendant ordered an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") to conduct a de novo review of her disability claim. Id. at 92, 94-115.

         On April 11, 2017, ALJ Gregory M. Hamel presided over a hearing on plaintiff's benefits application. R. at 45-76. The ALJ appeared by video from Alexandria, Virginia. Id. Plaintiff, represented by non-attorney representative Matthew F. Nutting, appeared and testified by video from Syracuse, New York. Id. The ALJ also heard testimony from Vocational Expert ("VE") Alissa Ann Smith. Id.

         On May 30, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying plaintiff's disability claim. R. at 10-27. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 1-6.


         A. Standard of Review

         A court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied. Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 305 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam).

         "First, the Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard." Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999). "Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal." Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984).

         "Next, the Court examines the record to determine if the Commissioner's conclusions are supported by substantial evidence." Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773. "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.'" Poupore, 556 F.3d at 305 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

         "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 v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988).

         If the Commissioner's disability determination is supported by substantial evidence, that determination is conclusive. See Williams, 859 F.2d at 258. Indeed, where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld-even if the court's independent review of the evidence may lead it to a different conclusion than the one reached by the Commissioner. Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

         B. The Commissioner's Disability Determination

         The Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In addition, the Act requires that a claimant's

physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

Section 423(d)(2)(A).

         The ALJ must follow a five-step evaluation process in deciding whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ m ust determine whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity is not disabled, and is therefore not entitled to benefits. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).

         If the claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, then step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments which significantly restricts the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).

         If the claimant is found to suffer from a severe impairment or combination of impairments, then step three requires the ALJ to determine whether, based solely on medical evidence, the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations (the "Listings"). 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. A claimant whose impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the Listings is "presumptively disabled." Martone, 70 F.Supp.2d at 149.

         If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, step four requires the ALJ to assess whether-despite the claimant's severe impairment-the claimant still has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform any past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f).

         The burden of proof with regard to these first four steps is on the claimant. Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996). However, if it is determined that the claimant cannot perform any past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. Id.

         This fifth step requires the ALJ to examine whether the claimant can do any type of work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). The regulations provide that factors such as a claimant's age, physical ability, education, and previous work experience should be evaluated to determine whether a claimant retains the RFC to perform work in any of five categories of jobs: very heavy, heavy, medium, light, and sedentary. Perez, 77 F.3d at 46.

         The Commissioner typically meets the burden at step five in one of two ways. If a claimant's impairments are primarily or exclusively exertional in nature, defendant may appropriately rely on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines contained in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2. Roma v. Astrue, 468 Fed.Appx. 16, 20 (2d Cir. 2012) (summary order).

         Commonly known as "the Grid" or "the Grids," the Medical-Vocational Guidelines are a collection of tables that "simplify and expedite the determination of disability" by offering "predeterminations of disability or non-disability for individual cases based on various combinations of residual functional capacity, age, education and work skill." Davis v. Shalala, 883 F.Supp. 828, 832 (E.D.N.Y. 1995) (citation omitted)

         Notably, the Commissioner may rely on the Guidelines even if a claimant suffers from one or more non-exertional impairments. See, e.g., Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 603 (2d Cir. 1986) (Cardamone, J.) ("[T]he mere existence of a nonexertional impairment does not automatically require the production of a vocational expert nor preclude reliance on the guidelines.").

         However, if a claimant's non-exertional limitations "significantly diminish" the residual capacity to work, the Commissioner "must introduce the testimony of a vocational expert (or other similar evidence) that jobs exist in the economy which claimant can obtain and perform." Chaparro v. Colvin, 156 F.Supp.3d ...

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