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McNaughton v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

January 14, 2020

SHAWNA McNAUGHTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID G. LARIMER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         PRELIMINARY STATEMENT

         Plaintiff Shawna McNaughton (“McNaughton”) brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Dkt. # 1).

         On December 30, 2014, McNaughton protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB and for SSI, alleging disability beginning on August 22, 2011. (Tr. 68, 69, 70, 82).[1] On April 17, 2015, the Social Security Administration denied McNaughton's applications, finding that she was not disabled. (Tr. 94-101). McNaughton requested and was granted a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Tr. 105-18). Administrative Law Judge Paul Greenberg (the “ALJ”) conducted the hearing on April 18, 2017, at which McNaughton and vocational expert Dian L. Haller (the “VE”) testified. (Tr. 33-67). In a decision dated June 16, 2017, the ALJ found that McNaughton was not disabled and was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 13-28). On July 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied McNaughton's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, making the Commissioner's decision final. (Tr. 1-6). McNaughton then commenced this action on September 14, 2018, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. (Dkt. # 1).

         Currently before the Court are the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Dkt. ## 10; 13). For the reasons set forth below, McNaughton's motion (Dkt. # 10) is denied, and the Commissioner's cross motion (Dkt. # 13), is granted. McNaughton's Complaint (Dkt. # 1), therefore, is dismissed with prejudice.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Relevant Standards

         Determination of whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act follows a well-known five-step sequential evaluation, familiarity with which is presumed. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The Commissioner's decision that a plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         In this case, the ALJ applied the sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that McNaughton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 22, 2011 - the alleged onset date. (Tr. 15). At step two, the ALJ found that McNaughton had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and bipolar disorder, alternatively referred to as depressive disorder or as borderline personality disorder. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ found that such impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or medical equal a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404 of the relevant regulations. (Tr. 16).

         Next, the ALJ determined that McNaughton retained the RFC to perform light work, except with the following additional limitations: occasional kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the ability to sit for five minutes after standing for 25 minutes, or stand for five minutes after sitting for 25 minutes, but she could continue to work in either position; frequent reaching with the bilateral upper extremities; and frequent interaction with co-workers as part of a job, and occasional in-person interaction with the public, but was not limited in interactions with the public via the telephone. (Tr. 17).

         At step four, based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that McNaughton had past work experience as a telemarketer (DOT # 299.357-014), which was sedentary work, and as a certified nurse assistant (“CNA”) (DOT # 355.674-014), which was medium work. (Tr. 22). The ALJ adopted the VE's testimony that McNaughton was capable of performing her past relevant work as a telemarketer. (Id.).

         While such a finding rendered McNaughton not disabled under the Act, the ALJ proceeded to make the alternative finding, at step five, that McNaughton could perform other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy based on her age, education, work experience, and RFC. (Id.). Specifically, based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that McNaughton could also perform the jobs of inspector of plastic products (DOT # 599.687-074), assembler of electronic parts (DOT # 729.684-054), and assembler of plastic products (DOT # 712.687-010), all of which were light, unskilled work with a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) level of 2. (Tr. 23). Therefore, based on the ALJ's findings, he found that McNaughton was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 24).

         III. McNaughton's Contentions

         McNaughton contends that the ALJ's determination that she is not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence and is the product of legal error. (Dkt. # 10). McNaughton principally takes issue with the ALJ's consideration of certain medical evidence related to her physical impairments.[2] Specifically, McNaughton contends that the ALJ failed: (1) to evaluate the opinion from treating orthopedic surgeon Cameron Huckell (“Huckell”), M.D.; (2) to properly evaluate the opinion of treating pain management specialist Bernard Beaupin (“Beaupin”), M.D.; (3) to properly evaluate the opinion of treating pain management specialist Romanth Waghmarae (“Waghmarae”), M.D.; and (4) to address the opinion of independent medical examiner Frank Luzi (“Luzi”), M.D. (Dkt. # 10-1 at 20-30). McNaughton also maintains that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because he failed to account for any limitations related to McNaughton's restricted ability to bend and twist her neck, as opined by Luzi. (Id. at 30-31).

         After considering these arguments and reviewing the record evidence, I believe the evidence supports the ALJ's findings concerning the nature and extent of McNaughton's limitations, and that his finding that McNaughton is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was not the product of legal error.

         IV. Analysis

         1. Dr. Huckell's Opinion

         McNaughton first argues that the ALJ did not weigh Huckell's permanency evaluation of McNaughton in accordance with the treating physician rule, which Huckell completed on September 15, 2015, for purposes of McNaughton's New York State Workers' Compensation claim. (Dkt. # 10-1 at 20-25). McNaughton also contends that the ALJ did not evaluate Huckell's opinions throughout his treatment notes regarding ...


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