Hicks v. Berryhill

Decision Date27 April 2020
Docket Number2:18-cv-1508 (ADS)
PartiesBRUCE L. HICKS, JR., Plaintiff, v. NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION & ORDER

APPEARANCES:

Algeria & Barovick LLP

Attorneys for the Plaintiff

235 Main Street, Suite 318

White Plains, NY 10601

By: Andrew J. Barovick, Esq., Of Counsel.

United States Attorneys Office, Eastern District of New York

Attorneys for the Defendant

271 Cadman Plaza East

Brooklyn, NY 11201

By: Mary M. Dickman, Esq., Assistant United States Attorney.

SPATT, District Judge:

On March 12, 2018, the Plaintiff Bruce L. Hicks (the "Plaintiff" or the "Claimant") commenced this appeal pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et seq. (the "Act"), challenging a final determination by the Defendant, Nancy A. Berryhill, the then Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Defendant" or the "Commissioner"), that she was ineligible to receive Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits.

Andrew M. Saul is now the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("FED. R. CIV. P.") 25(d), Saul is hereby substituted for Acting Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill as the defendant in this action. See, e.g., Pelaez v. Berryhill, No. 12-CV-7796, 2017 WL 6389162 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 14, 2017), adopted by, 2018 WL 318478 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2018).

Presently before the Court are the parties' cross motions, pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(c) for a judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons that follow, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion, grants the Defendant's cross-motion, and closes the case.

I. BACKGROUND

On October 28, 2014, the Plaintiff, then age 38, applied for SSI benefits under §§ 216(i) and 223 of the Act. The Plaintiff alleged that he was a former landscaper with a high school diploma, and that he had been disabled since May 25, 2000 because of a motorcycle accident. He further alleged that this accident caused him the following maladies: (1) chronic, severe pain and limitation of movement throughout his left leg, starting at the hip, extending through the tibia-fibula area and going down to the ankle and foot; (2) diabetic neuropathic pain in in both feet; (3) foot drop in his left foot; and (4) lumbar radiculopathy stemming from a left L5/S1 paracentral disc extrusion. He also claimed to suffer from several psychological impairments: (1) panic disorder; (2) agoraphobia; (3) anxiety related disorders; and (4) difficulty maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.

His claim was denied on December 18, 2014, and he requested a hearing. The Plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge Alan B. Berkowitz (the "ALJ") on February 22, 2017. On March 23, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision in which he found that the Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act as of October 28, 2014, the date he applied for SSI benefits.

The Plaintiff sought a review by the Appeals Council, and on January 9, 2018, the Appeals Counsel ruled that it would not further review the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decisionbecame the final decision of the Commissioner upon the Appeals Council's denial of the Plaintiff's request for review.

On March 12, 2018, the Plaintiff filed the present action. On June 19, 2019, the parties submitted the Plaintiff's Rule 12(c) motion and the Defendant's Rule 12(c) cross-motion as fully briefed to the Court.

For purposes of these motions, familiarity with the underlying administrative record is presumed. The Court's discussion of the evidence will be limited to the specific challenges and responses presently raised by the Plaintiff and the Defendant. In this regard, references to the record are denoted as "R."

II. DISCUSSION

Briefly, the parties have presented three issues for the Court, whether: (1) whether the ALJ violated the treating physician rule in not assigning controlling weight to the testimony of the Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Matthew Shatzer ("Shatzer"); (2) the evidence supported the ALJ's findings as to the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (3) the ALJ erred in his ruling that the Plaintiff was not credible. The Court holds that the substantial evidence supported the ALJ's ruling as to all three issues.. In addition, the Court holds that the ALJ's disability ruling is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court denies the Plaintiff's Rule 12(c) motion, grants the Defendant's Rule 12(c) cross-motion, and dismisses the case.

A. The Standard for Benefits Under the Act

The Act defines the term "disability" to mean an "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). A person may only be disabled if his "impairments are 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

In determining whether a person is disabled, the Commissioner is required to apply the five-step sequential process promulgated by the Social Security Administration, set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. See Rosa v Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999). The Plaintiff bears the burden of proving the first four steps, but then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to prove that the Plaintiff is capable of working. Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam); Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008); Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77. See also Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996) ("If the claimant satisfies her burden of proving the requirements in the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the [Commissioner] to prove in the fifth step that the claimant is capable of working."). "If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the [Social Security Administration] will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24, 124 S. Ct. 376, 379, 157 L. Ed. 2d 333 (2003).

Under the five-step sequential evaluation process, the decision-maker decides:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a 'residual functional capacity'assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014); Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 37 (2d Cir. 1996); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. When conducting this analysis, the ALJ must consider the objective medical facts; the diagnoses or medical opinions based on these facts; the subjective evidence of pain and disability; as well as the plaintiff's age, background, education and work experience. Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1037 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam).

B. The Standard of Review

"Judicial review of the denial of disability benefits is narrow" and "[t]he Court will set aside the Commissioner's conclusions only if they are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or are based on an erroneous legal standard." Koffsky v. Apfel, 26 F. Supp. 2d 475, 478 (E.D.N.Y. 1998) (Spatt, J.) (citing Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 179-71 (2d Cir. 1998)); accord Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See also Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) ("Where there is substantial evidence to support either position, the determination is one to be made by the factfinder."). The ALJ is required to set forth those crucial factors used to justify his or her findings with sufficient particularity to allow the district court to make a determination regarding the existence of substantial evidence. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984).

Accordingly, "the reviewing court does not decide the case de novo." Pereira v. Astrue, 279 F.R.D. 201, 205 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir.2004)). Rather, "the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive," id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), and therefore, the relevant question is not "whether there is substantial evidence supporting the [plaintiff's] view;" instead, the Court "must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision," Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 F. App'x 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013) (Summary Order) (emphasis in original). In this way, the "substantial evidence" standard is "very deferential" to the Commissioner, and allows courts to reject the ALJ's findings "'only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.'" Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (quoting Warren v. Shalala, 29 F.3d 1287, 1290 (8th Cir. 1994) (emphasis in original)). This deferential standard applies not only to factual determinations, but also to "inferences and conclusions drawn from such facts." Pena v. Barnhart, No. 01-CV-502, 2002 WL 31487903, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 29, 2002) (citing Levine v. Gardner, 360 F.2d 727, 730 (2d Cir. 1966)).

"Substantial evidence means 'more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to...

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