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William R. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. New York

January 8, 2020

WILLIAM R, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF NORTHEASTERN NEW YORK MARY MARTHA WITHINGTON, ESQ., Attorney for Plaintiff

          SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Office of the General Counsel DANIEL STICE TARABELLI, ESQ. Attorney for Defendant

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          Mae A. D'Agostino, U.S. District Judge:

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On May 4, 2015, Plaintiff William R. filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See Dkt. No. 8, Administrative Transcript ("Tr.") at 126. On October 22, 2015, Plaintiffs claims were initially denied. Id. at 127-32. Plaintiff made a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), who issued an unfavorable decision on November 1, 2017. See Id. at 25-43. Plaintiff made a request to review the unfavorable decision, and on October 11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request to review. See Id. at 6-9.

         Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision. Currently before the Court are the parties' briefs for judgment on the pleadings. See Dkt. Nos. 9, 14.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs date of birth is April 27, 1973, which made him approximately forty-two years old at the time he filed for SSI on May 4, 2015. See Tr. at 126. The highest grade in school that Plaintiff completed was eighth grade. See Id. at 59. Plaintiff testified that he cannot read or write. See Id. Plaintiff testified that he is able to do basic math calculations and can handle money. See Id. Plaintiff attempted to receive a GED, but failed the test. Id. at 63. Plaintiff received job training, specifically automotive training, in 1993. See Id. at 62-63.

         Plaintiff worked as an auto mechanic from the age of nineteen until approximately 2008, which is also the claimed onset date of disability. See Id. at 57. Plaintiffs work history indicated that he worked from 2006 until 2008 as an auto technician at Kost Tire, a battery tester from 2003 to 2004 at Ultralife Battery, and from 2000 until 2004 as a technician at Jay's Tire. See Id. at 214. Plaintiff believed that he held only one other job doing drywall work over twenty years prior. See Id. at 63.

         Plaintiff lived alone at the time of the hearing. See Id. at 57. He was receiving temporary assistance from Social Services and food stamps at the time of the hearing. See Id. at 60. Plaintiff indicated that he was told by his doctors not to drive because of limited range of motion in his neck, though he did have a driver's license at the time of the hearing. See Id. at 58. Plaintiff stated he would take Medicab transportation for some appointments, but for grocery shopping, he drove himself. See Id. Plaintiff stated that he could walk for no more than five minutes, could stand for approximately ten minutes, and could sit for approximately twenty minutes at a time. See Id. at 67. Plaintiff had particular difficulty with certain chores, including cleaning his dishes, bending over to pick up things, and taking the trash out, sometimes receiving assistance from his neighbors (including on visits to the grocery store). See Id. at 72.

         Plaintiff had cervical surgery in May 2016 and April 2015. Id. at 796. At Plaintiffs hearing, he described being prevented from working a full-time job because of "chronic neck pain, chronic depression, anxiety, constant nausea . . . ." Id. at 59. Plaintiff described having difficulty going up and down the stairs to his second floor apartment, which was exacerbated by his right leg "giv[ing] out because of the problem in my lower back." Id. at 61. Plaintiff indicated that he had been prescribed a cane and a walker by a doctor. See Id. at 66. Plaintiff further indicated that he had permanent tingling in multiple fingers due to his neck surgery, which interfered with his ability to lift objects. See Id. at 62. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff stated that he took medication for depression, anxiety, chronic pain, nausea, and acid reflux. See Id. at 60. As a result of his impairments, Plaintiff claimed that he was unable to lift and carry more than ten pounds, and if he tried to lift more, he got a shooting pain down his right leg. See Id. at 62. Plaintiff described that he believed that, in terms of preventing his ability to try and find and keep a job, it was a "tie" between his mental and physical problems. See Id. at 64.

         Plaintiff indicated that his chronic neck pain forced him to sleep in a recliner. See Id. at 65. Plaintiff sleeps seven to nine hours an evening due to his medications for depression and anxiety. See Id. at 59. Plaintiff smokes approximately one pack of cigarettes a day. See Id. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff had been in recovery for alcohol addiction for approximately three months "this round," attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings two times a week. See id. at 60-61. Since applying for disability, Plaintiff stated his longest period of sobriety was ten months. See Id. at 69. At times, Plaintiff stated he consumed approximately thirty beers per day. See Id. at 489. Plaintiff stated that his anxiety resulted in his having "a hard time going out in public." Id. at 68. Plaintiff indicated his only hobby was using a radio-controlled car. See Id. at 72.

         In a decision dated November 1, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. See Id. at 25-43. Plaintiff timely filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, see Id. at 182-85, and the Appeals Council denied his request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. See Id. at 6-9. In his decision, the ALJ found the following: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 4, 2015; (2) Plaintiffs severe impairments include degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with radiculopathy, primarily into the left upper extremity, lumbar degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy and a herniated disc at ¶ 5-S1 on the right, anxiety disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder/alcohol dependence; (3) Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments; (4) Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a) with limitations to not standing in excess of thirty minutes at a time, having the option to reposition or stand at will, minimal interaction with the public, performance of simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, and not performing work requiring constant movement of the head either up or down or left to right; (5) Plaintiffs RFC renders him not capable of performing past relevant work; and (6) considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. See Id. at 30-43. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. See id.

         Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review of the denial of his claims by the filing of a complaint on December 14, 2018. See Dkt. No. 1. The parties have filed briefs for judgment on the pleadings. See Dkt. Nos. 9, 14.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         A person is disabled when he is unable "to engage in 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). There is a five-step analysis for evaluating disability claims:

In essence, if the Commissioner determines (1) that the claimant is not working, (2) that he has a "severe impairment," (3) that the impairment is not one [listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations] that conclusively requires a determination of disability, and (4) that the claimant is not capable of continuing in his prior type of work, the Commissioner must find him disabled if (5) there is not another type of work the claimant can do.

Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Draegert v. Barnhart, 311 F.3d 468, 472 (2d Cir. 2002)) (other citation omitted). "The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, while the Social Security Administration bears the burden on the last step." Id. (citation omitted).

         In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405, the Court does not determine de novo whether a plaintiff is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Court must examine the Administrative Transcript to ascertain whether the correct legal standards were applied, and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000); Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). "Substantial evidence" is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiffs 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) (citing Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982)) (other citations omitted). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984) (citation omitted).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         At the first step of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 4, 2015, the application date. See Tr. at 30. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with radiculopathy, primarily into the left upper extremity, lumbar degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy and a herniated disc at ¶ 5-S1 on the right, anxiety disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder/alcohol dependence. See Id. at 30-33. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See Id. at 33-35. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff

has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a). Additionally, the claimant cannot stand in excess of 30 minutes at a time and must have the option to reposition or stand at will (i.e., a sit/stand option). The claimant can have minimal (i.e., brief and superficial) interaction with the public. He can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. He cannot do work requiring constant movement of the head either up or down or left to right.

Id. at 35. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. See Id. at 42. At the fifth and final step of the analysis, the ALJ solicited the testimony of a vocational expert. See Id. at 42-43. The vocational expert testified that a hypothetical individual of Plaintiff s age, with his education, past relevant work experience, and RFC (as described above) could perform the representative occupations of surveillance systems monitor, call out operator, escort vehicle driver, and possibly a document preparer. See Id. at 43 The ALJ relied on this testimony to determine that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. See Id.

         C. Analysis

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's determination denying his disability application should be remanded back to the Commissioner for the following reasons: (1) the ALJ did not consider the cumulative effect of Plaintiff s impairments; (2) Plaintiff met the criteria for a Listed Impairment under § 12.04 depressive, bipolar and related disorders and § 12.06 anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders[1]; (3) the RFC is not supported because the ALJ gave improper weight to Plaintiffs subjective complaints and failed to engage in the proper analysis under Social Security Ruling 16-3; (4) the ALJ committed reversible error in finding the RFC to perform sedentary work in occupations identified by the vocational expert; and (5) the ALJ's decision is against the substantial weight of the evidence and is incorrect as a matter of law. See Dkt. No. 9 at 17-26.

         1. Combined Impact of Plaintiffs Impairments

         Plaintiff summarily alleges that the ALJ failed to consider the combined effect of Plaintiffs impairments, particularly focusing on the combination of physical and mental impairments, leading to an erroneous decision that Plaintiff is not impaired. See Dkt. No. 9 at 18-19. This argument is without merit.

         The ALJ noted the effect of Plaintiff s impairments in combination in Plaintiffs evaluation. Throughout the ALJ's decision, he noted that he was, in fact, required to consider Plaintiffs impairments in combination. See Tr. at 28, 29, 30, 33, 34. At step two, the ALJ discussed a connection between Plaintiffs alcoholism and his gastritis and pancreatitis. See Tr. at 32, 673, 687. At step four, the ALJ further discussed that, at times when Plaintiff was drinking heavily, it "appears [it] was contributing to his abdominal pain and nausea." Id. at 40, 687-88. Again at step four, the ALJ explicitly stated that Plaintiff "reported taking medication for nausea, which he associated with anxiety." Id. at 40, 416. The ALJ further acknowledged that he "considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can be reasonably accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence." Id. at 35. Thus, "[w]hen taken together, the ALJ's [complete] analysis sufficiently assessed the plaintiffs impairments in combination at several points in his decision. The ALJ also examined plaintiffs medical records. Accordingly, [the Court] finds that the ALJ's assessment of the plaintiffs combination of impairments was sufficient." DeJesus v. Astrue, No. 3:10-CV-705, 2011 WL 2076447, *3 (D. Conn. May 26, 2011) (citing Gooch v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 833 F.3d 589, 591-92 (6th Cir. 1987) ("The ALJ's decision not to reopen [the plaintiffs] earlier application for disability benefits was made after 'a thorough review of the medical evidence of record,' and the fact that each element of the record was discussed individually hardly suggests that the totality of the record was not considered, particularly in view of the fact that the ALJ specifically referred to 'a combination of impairments' in deciding that [the plaintiff] did not meet the 'listings.'")).

         2. Plaintiffs Impairments

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step three of the sequential evaluation. Plaintiff contends that his depression and anxiety meet the criteria of Listing 12.04 (depressive, bipolar and related disorders) and Listing 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders), and that this demonstrates that he was unable to engage in substantial gainful activity. See Dkt. No. 9 at 19-20. The Court finds this argument unpersuasive.

         The Listing of Impairments, set forth in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, describes for each of the major body systems impairments that are considered severe enough to prevent an individual from performing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education or work experience. In order to meet or equal Listing 12.04, Plaintiff had to show that his depressive, bipolar, or related disorder satisfied the requirements of paragraphs A and B, or A and C, as set forth below:

         A. Medical documentation of the requirements of paragraph 1 or 2:

         1. Depressive disorder, characterized by five or ...


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