Martes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.

Decision Date02 November 2018
Docket Number17 Civ. 5772 (GWG)
Citation344 F.Supp.3d 750
Parties Jaron Anthony MARTES, Plaintiff, v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of New York

Daniel Berger, NY Disability, LLC., Bronx, NY, for Plaintiff

Amanda Frances Parsels, Office of the United States Attorney, New York, NY, for Defendant


GABRIEL W. GORENSTEIN, United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Jaron Anthony Martes brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Benefits under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c).1 For the reasons stated below, Martes's motion is denied and the Commissioner's motion is granted.

A. Procedural History

Martes applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on November 5, 2013. See Certified Administrative Record, filed Jan. 8, 2018 (Docket # 15) ("R."), at 10, 73-74. He alleged that his disability began on July 1, 2013, the date he was injured in a car accident, when he was 33 years old. R. 10, 17, 286.

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Martes's applications and Martes sought review by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). R. 75, 83, 85. An initial hearing was held on January 12, 2016, before an ALJ. R. 47-60. A supplemental hearing was held on June 15, 2016, before the same ALJ. R. 31-46. In a written decision dated August 22, 2016, the ALJ found Martes not disabled within the meaning of the Act. R. 7-19. On May 31, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Martes's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-6. This action followed.

B. The Hearing Before the ALJ

Martes was represented by attorney David Levine at his hearings before the ALJ. R. 31, 47. Because the ALJ had not received any records for medical appointments occurring after May 2014 prior to the initial hearing held in January 2016, the initial hearing was limited to oral testimony from Martes as to his treatment during the period of May 2014 through January 2016. See R. 50-52. Martes testified to seeing two physicians in that time: Dr. Emmanuel Lambrakis for pain management and Dr. Eli Witt for psychiatric counseling. R. 55, 56-57. He also referred to a primary care physician at Montefiore Medical Center whom he saw for referrals. R. 54.

At the June 15, 2016, hearing, Martes testified that prior to the car accident he worked in customer service at a retail store, as well as "some delivery and moving type work," and maintenance. R. 36. After the accident, however, he began to experience knee, neck, and back pain. R. 37, 38-39. He felt radiating pain from his neck into his spine and his hands and arms sometimes shook due to his neck pain. R. 43. He also experienced sharp pains in his lower back, radiating "sometimes" to his legs. R. 43. Because of his pain, he estimated that he could stand no more than 15 minutes at a time, R. 44, and that in an eight-hour period he would spend "most of the time ... laying down somewhere," R. 45. If he instead spent the time sitting, he would experience back pain. R. 45. To cope with this pain, Martes takes several medications — namely, Oxycodone, Xanax, and Motrin — that cause him to experience incoherence, difficulty walking, dizziness, and memory problems. R. 37-38. As a result of the pain and the side effects of his pain medication, he said he could no longer perform his prior work. R. 37. Martes underwent surgery on his knee, but he did not have any improvement as a result. R. 38. He turned down a recommendation that he undergo a second surgery because he did not want it. R. 38. Martes also reported seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety and trouble sleeping. R. 39.

Martes was 36 years old at the time of the hearing. R. 35. He testified to having two children and recently living with them, though he had since moved in with his mother. R. 36, 40. He stated that he spent most of his days sleeping and reported that he is unable to take care of his children as a result of the drowsiness associated with his medications, though he used to take care of them. R. 40-41. He did not drive or perform activities of daily living, like cleaning or cooking, relying on his mother for these activities. R. 41. He also did not "associate with public transportation" because of the side effects from his medication. R. 42. He used to have hobbies, but no longer had any. R. 42. Instead he spends his time "try[ing] to sleep," so that the effects of his medication "wear off." R. 41.

C. The Medical Evidence

Both Martes and the Commissioner have provided summaries of the medical evidence contained in the administrative record. See Pl. Mem. at 1-5; Comm'r Mem. at 4-10. The summaries are substantially consistent with each other. The Court had directed the parties to specify any objections they had to the opposing party's summary of the record, see Scheduling Order, filed Jan. 10, 2018 (Docket # 16), ¶ 5, and neither party has done so.2 Accordingly, the Court adopts Martes's and the Commissioner's summaries of the medical evidence as accurate and complete for purposes of the issues raised in this suit. We discuss the medical evidence pertinent to the adjudication of this case in section III below.

D. The ALJ's Decision

The ALJ denied Martes's application for DIB and SSI on August 22, 2016. R. 7. Following the five-step test set forth in SSA regulations, the ALJ found at step one that Martes had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2013, the alleged [disability] onset date." R. 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Martes had the following severe impairments: "status post arthroscopic repair of the left knee, L4-5 disc bulge and straightening of the lumbar lordosis, disc bulges of the cervical spine at C4-C5 and C5-C6, as well as straightening of the cervical lordosis." Id. The ALJ also noted that Martes had the "non-severe impairments" of high blood pressure, childhood asthma, right shoulder surgery, and "adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood." R. 13. At step three, the ALJ concluded that none of Martes's severe impairments singly or in combination met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). R. 14-15. The ALJ considered Listings 1.02 and 1.04, determining that Martes did not exhibit the necessary medical criteria. Id. Before moving to step four, the ALJ assessed Martes's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). R. 14. The ALJ determined that Martes retained the RFC "to perform sedentary work ... except [Martes] is limited to occasionally climbing, balancing, kneeling, stooping, crouching and crawling." R. 15-17. In making this determination, the ALJ accorded varying weights to the opinions of Dr. Seema Rai, Dr. Ksenia Pavlova, and Dr. Eli Witt. Id. Having determined Martes's RFC, the ALJ evaluated at step four whether Martes could continue his past work "as a maintenance worker, stocker, and youth monitor," concluding that he no longer could. R. 17. At step five, because the ALJ found that Martes retained the RFC to perform the "full range of sedentary work" with "additional limitations [that] have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled sedentary work," the ALJ determined that the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, Rule 201.28 directed a finding of "not disabled" under the Act. R. 18.

A. Scope of Judicial Review Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)

A court reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner "is limited to determining whether the [Commissioner's] conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard." Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); accord Greek v. Colvin, 802 F.3d 370, 374-75 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam); see generally 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive ...."). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means 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, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938) ); accord Greek, 802 F.3d at 375 ; Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127-28 (2d Cir. 2008) ; Matthews v. Leavitt, 452 F.3d 145, 152 n.9 (2d Cir. 2006) ; Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000).

"Even where the administrative record may also adequately support contrary findings on particular issues, the ALJ's factual findings must be given conclusive effect so long as they are supported by substantial evidence." Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, "[i]f the reviewing court finds substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's final decision, that decision must be upheld, even if substantial evidence supporting the claimant's position also exists." Johnson v. Astrue, 563 F.Supp.2d 444, 454 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (citing Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) ). The Second Circuit has characterized the substantial evidence standard as "a very deferential standard of review — even more so than the ‘clearly erroneous’ standard." Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam). "The substantial evidence standard means once an ALJ finds facts, [a court] can reject those facts only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude...

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