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Bowler v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 7, 2020

BRIAN BOWLER, Plaintiff,

          For Plaintiff: Stacey Rinaldi Guzman, Esq. Stanton, Guzman & Miller LLP

          For Defendant: Candace Scott Appleton, Esq. United States Attorney's Office Eastern District of New York



         Plaintiff Brian Bowler (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the Commissioner of Social Security's (the “Commissioner”) denial of his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. (Compl., D.E. 1, ¶¶ 1, 8.) Presently pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Pl. Mot., D.E. 9; Comm'r Mot., D.E. 13.) For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED and the Commissioner's motion is DENIED.


         On July 13, 2015, Plaintiff completed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging that since December 31, 2014, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), emphysema, chronic pneumonia, lumber spine pain, osteoarthritis, venus insufficiency, hepatitis C, and cellulitis rendered him disabled. (R. 187-88, 245.) After Plaintiff's claim was denied (R. 108-19), he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (R. 120-21). On February 20, 2018, Plaintiff, accompanied by counsel, appeared for a video hearing before the ALJ. (R. 34-56.) A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (R. 47-55.)

         In a decision dated March 8, 2018, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 12-33.) On July 6, 2018, the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-4.)

         Plaintiff initiated this action on September 7, 2018 (see Compl.) and moved for judgment on the pleadings on April 4, 2019 (Pl. Mot.). On July 3, 2019, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Comm'r Mot.)


         I. Standard of Review

         In reviewing the ruling of an ALJ, the Court does not determine de novo whether Plaintiff is entitled to disability benefits. Thus, even if the Court may have reached a different decision, it must not substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. See Jones v. Sullivan, 949 F.2d 57, 59 (2d Cir. 1991). If the Court finds that substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision will be upheld, even if evidence to the contrary exists. See Johnson v. Barnhart, 269 F.Supp.2d 82, 84 (E.D.N.Y. 2003).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured-status requirements of his claim through December 31, 2017. (R. 18.) Next, the ALJ applied the familiar five-step disability analysis and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from December 31, 2014, the alleged disability-onset date, through December 31, 2017, the last date insured. (R. 18-29); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At steps one through three, the ALJ found that (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, (R. 18); (2) Plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of lumbago, degenerative disc disease, and COPD (R. 18-19); and (3) Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations (R. 19-20).

         The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform light work (per the jobs identified by the vocational expert) as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b).” (R. 20-27.) The vocational expert testified that Plaintiff could find gainful employment as (1) an inspector hand packager, (2) an electrical accessories assembler, (3) a cashier, (4) a photo copy machine operator, and (5) a hand trimmer. (R. 28.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff “could lift/carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty pounds frequently; sit eight hours, up to four hours at a time; stand eight hours, up to two hours at a time; and walk eight hours, up to two hours at a time” and that Plaintiff could “change positions at the workstation, with no interruption of the work.” (R. 20.) The ALJ further found Plaintiff (1) “should never climb ladders or scaffolds and should not work at unprotected heights, ” (2) “could frequently tolerate humidity and wetness, ” (3) “should avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants (i.e., dust, odors, fumes, gases and poor ventilation), ” and (5) “could tolerate loud (heavy traffic) noise.” (R. 20.)

         Proceeding to steps four and five, the ALJ found that while (4) Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a recycling worker (R. 27), (5) considering his RFC, age, education, and work experience, Plaintiff could make a successful adjustment to work existing in significant numbers in the national economy as an inspector hand packager, electrical accessories assembler, cashier, photo copy machine operator, and hand trimmer (R. 27-28). As a result, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled.[2] (R. 29.)

         A. The ALJ's RFC Determination

         The ALJ addressed Plaintiff's alleged claims of disability due to “COPD, lumbar spine (pain), emphysema, osteoarthritis, venous insufficiency, hepatitis C, cellulitis, and chronic pneumonia” and referenced his testimony that he is unable to work “due to breathing problems and pain in his back.” (R. 20, 24.) However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not appear to have a disabling physical condition” even though Plaintiff's impairments could “reasonably be expected to cause the alleged ...

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