Stevens v. Commissioner of Social Security
DECISION AND ORDER DENYING Plaintiff's 11 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; GRANTING Defendant's 9 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; DIRECTING the Clerk of the Court to close this case. Signed by William M. Skretny, Chief Judge on 6/22/2014. (MEAL) - CLERK TO FOLLOW UP -
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
JUSTIN FRANCIS STEVENS,
DECISION AND ORDER
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
Justin Stevens challenges the decision of an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”).
Alleging disability due to mental illness beginning October 11, 2008, Stevens
applied for Social Security benefits on June 1, 2009.1 The Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denied that application, and as result, Stevens requested an
administrative hearing. He received that hearing before ALJ Timothy M. McGuan on
January 25, 2011.The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on February 16, 2011 issued
a decision denying Stevens’s application. Stevens filed a request for review with the
Appeals Council, but the Council denied that request, prompting him to file the current civil
action, challenging Defendant’s final decision.2
On April 16, 2014, the Commissioner filed a motion for judgment on the
pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Stevens followed
suit three days later. Briefing concluded in May of 2014, at which time this Court took the
Stevens also applied for benefits in 2007, but he ultimately withdrew that application.
The ALJ’s decision became the Commissioner’s final decision in this case when the Appeals
Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review.
motions under review. For the following reasons, the Commissioner’s motion is granted
and Stevens’s is denied.
A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo
whether an individual 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 Commissioner’s
determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there
has been a legal error. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v.
Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). Substantial evidence is that which amounts to
“more than a mere scintilla”; 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, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971). Where
evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the
Commissioner’s conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60,
62 (2d Cir. 1982).
“To determine on appeal whether the 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 on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen,
859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's
finding must be sustained “even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's
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). 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 & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process
to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Act. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this
analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S. Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L. Ed. 2d
119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is
This five-step process is detailed below:
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently
engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next
considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly
limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant
suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on
medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix
1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the
[Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational
factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner]
presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable
to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have
a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's
severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his
past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the
[Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the
claimant could perform.
Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); see also Rosa v.
Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant has the
burden of proof as to the first four steps, but the Commissioner has the burden of proof on
the fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n. 5; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d
582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).
In this case, the ALJ made the following findings: (1) Stevens has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended onset date (R. 15);3 (2) Stevens
suffers from bipolar disorder and a history of alcohol abuse, both severe impairments (R.
16); (3) he does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the criteria necessary for finding a disabling impairment under the
regulations (id.); (4) he retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work
with some non-exertional restrictions, and he can perform past work as a tire buffer (R. 17,
24); and alternatively (5) there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy – including a “packaging machine operator” – that he can make a
successful adjustment to and that he can perform. (R. 24-25.) Ultimately, the ALJ
concluded that Stevens was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, from his onset
date through the date of the decision. (R. 25.)
Stevens raises several objections to the ALJ’s finding. Each that require
discussion will be addressed below.
Stevens first argues that the ALJ failed to classify his carpel tunnel syndrome
as a “severe impairment” at Step 2. To support this argument, Stevens relies primarily on
a report compiled before his onset date that suggests he still has numbness and will
“occasionally drop things from his right hand.” (R. 213.) But there is simply no merit to the
argument that this constitutes a severe impairment. The ALJ correctly noted that:
the claimant offered no complaints of carpal tunnel syndrome
or of a similar impairment, either in documentary evidence or
through testimony at the hearing. There are no follow up
medical records after July 2003. The claimant’s primary care
physician did not mention carpal tunnel syndrome or any type
of hand or wrist impairment in a medical report she submitted
Citations to the underlying administrative record are designated “R.”
with this claim.
In other words, there is no substantial evidence suggesting that his carpal
tunnel syndrome significantly limits his capacity to perform basic work activities. See 20
C.F.R. § 404.1521(a); Social Security Ruling 85-28. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err at this
This Court also finds no error the ALJ’s residual-functional-capacity
assessment. The ALJ determined Stevens was capable of a full range of work with some
non-exertional limitations. Social Security Ruling 96-8P instructs the ALJ to consider
whether a claimiant suffering from mental impairments can “understand, carry out, and
remember instructions; use judgment in making work-related decisions; respond
appropriately to supervision, co-workers and work situations; and deal with changes in a
routine work setting.” ALJ McGaun adequately complied with this directive.
He found that Stevens can only “occasionally understand, remember and
carry out complex and detailed tasks and can only occasionally interact with others.” (R.
18.) The ALJ relied primarily on Dr. Robert Hill, a consultive examiner, in making this
determination. Dr. Hill, the only examining physician to render an opinion on Stevens’
mental limitations in functioning, found that Stevens could follow and understand simple
directions and instructions, perform simple tasks independently, maintain attention and
concentration, maintain a regular schedule, make appropriate decisions and relate
adequately with others. (R. 288.)
The ALJ properly incorporated these limitations into a hypothetical that he
posed to the vocational expert, Jay Steinbrenner, who, consulting the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles, testified that a person with those limitations could perform both
Stevens’s former job as a tire buffer and other jobs that exist in sufficient numbers the
Especially considering the lack of any opinion evidence to the contrary, the
ALJ was entitled to rely on Dr. Hill’s findings, which the ALJ found consistent with the
objective medical evidence. See, e.g., Diaz v. Shalala, 59 F.3d 307, 315 (2d Cir.1995);
Gray v. Astrue, No. 09-CV-00584, 2011 WL 2516496, at *5 (W.D.N.Y. June 23, 2011) (“A
written report of a consultative examiner can constitute substantial evidence.”).
The “mental RFC” was therefore not “incomplete” as Stevens argues. (Pl.’s Br. at
12.) Rather, it adequately accounted for Stevens’s mental limitations and contains no
The ALJ found Stevens to be “generally credible” and that “his impairments
could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms.” (R. 18.) “[H]owever,” the
ALJ continued, “the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting
effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the 
[RFC] assessment.” (Id.) Stevens argues that this credibility assessment is not supported
by substantial evidence. He argues repeatedly, but vaguely and unconvincingly, that the
ALJ “did not apply the appropriate legal standards.” (See, e.g., Pl.’s Br. at 14.)
Although an ALJ must consider the claimant’s testimony, he “is not required
to accept the claimant's subjective complaints without question; he may exercise discretion
in weighing the credibility of the claimant's testimony in light of other evidence in the
record.” Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir.2010) (per curiam). Indeed, “the ALJ
alone decides issues of credibility and this Court must give great deference to those
decisions, as the ALJ observed the witness's testimony and demeanor.” Walker v. Astrue,
No. 11-CV-766S, 2012 WL 4473249, at *5 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2012) (citing Gernavage
v. Shalala, 882 F.Supp. 1413, 1419 n. 6 (S.D.N.Y.1995); Serra v. Sullivan, 762 F.Supp.
1030, 1034 (W.D.N.Y.1991)). Applying that deferential standard, this Court finds no error
in the ALJ’s determination that the persistence and intensity of Stevens’s symptoms were
overstated and that he could perform the type of work outlined in the RFC.
In the end, there can be no doubt that Stevens suffers from some degree of
mental illness. All the medical evidence supports that conclusion. But that fact alone does
not compel the conclusion that Stevens is too disabled to perform any work. Rather, the
ALJ found that, indeed, Stevens retains the capacity to do some work, so long as certain
conditions are met. This Court’s task is to determine whether that decision is supported by
substantial evidence and whether the ALJ committed any reversible errors in making that
determination. Grey, 721 F.2d at 46. After a careful review of the record, this Court finds
that it is and that he did not. Accordingly, Defendant’s Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings is granted and Plaintiff’s motion seeking the same relief is denied.
IT HEREBY IS ORDERED, that Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
(Docket No. 11) is DENIED.
FURTHER, that Defendant’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Docket No. 9)
FURTHER, that the Clerk of Court shall close this case.
Dated: June 22, 2014
Buffalo, New York
/s/William M. Skretny
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY
United States District Court
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