United States District Court, N.D. New York
OFFICES OF KENNETH HILLER, PLLC Attorneys for Plaintiff
SECURITY ADMINISTRATION OFFICE OF REGIONAL GENERAL COUNSEL -
REGION II Attorneys for Defendant
KENNETH R. HILLER, ESQ., JUSTIN M. GOLDSTEIN, ESQ., SIXTINA
FERNANDEZ, ESQ. Special Ass't United States Attorney
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
N. HURD UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Tahira H. ("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. Plaintiff's appeal will be considered
on the basis of these submissions without oral argument.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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).
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).
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,
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).
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).
The Commissioner's Disability
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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)
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
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