McAuliffe v. Barnhart, 06-CV-0453.

Decision Date25 July 2008
Docket NumberNo. 06-CV-0453.,06-CV-0453.
Citation571 F.Supp.2d 400
PartiesLucille A. McAULIFFE, Plaintiff, v. Joanne BARNHART, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of New York

Felice A. Brodsky, Lockport, NY, for Plaintiff.

Jane B. Wolfe, U.S. Attorney's Office, Buffalo, NY, for Defendant.

DECISION and ORDER

MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Lucille McAuliffe ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act § 216(I) and § 223, seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Specifically, McAuliffe alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William R. Pietz was erroneous because it was not supported by substantial evidence in the record.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on the grounds that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff opposes the Commissioner's motion and cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings, or in the alternative for the case to be remanded. For the reasons set forth below, I hereby reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand this case to the Commissioner for calculation of benefits.

BACKGROUND

On April 26, 2001, plaintiff Lucille McAuliffe, at the time a 58 year old former secretary, travel clerk, and cashier, applied for Social Security disability benefits claiming that she had become unable to work as of April 16, 1998 because of a heart condition, diabetes, ankle problems, and spinal disc problems (Tr. 75). Plaintiffs application was initially denied (Tr. 34). She then filed a request for a hearing, and on September 17, 2002, a hearing was held before ALJ William R. Pietz (Tr. 357-392). On November 14, 2002, the ALJ found that the plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 15-22). This became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on May 17, 2006 (Tr. 5-7). This action followed.

DISCUSSION
I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

Title 42, Section 405(g) of the United States Code grants jurisdiction to Federal District Courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 320, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976). Additionally, .the section directs that the District Court must accept the Commissioner's findings of fact if those findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 181 (2d Cir.1998); see also Williams v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 236 Fed.Appx. 641, 642 (2d Cir. Apr. 24, 2007). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the Court's scope of review to determining whether or not the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole, and whether the Commissioner's conclusions are based upon an erroneous legal standard. Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir.2003); see also Wagner v. Secretary of Health & Human Serv., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990) (holding that review of the Secretary's decision is not de novo and that the Secretary's findings are conclusive if supported by the substantial evidence).

The Commissioner asserts that his decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Judgment on the pleadings may be granted under Rule 12(c) where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2d Cir.1988). If, after a review of the pleadings, the court is convinced that plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle her to relief, judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957).

II. Standard for Entitlement to Social Security Benefits

Under the Social Security Act, a disability is defined as the "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) (concerning Old-Age, Survivors', and Disability Insurance ("OASDI")); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004) (concerning SSI payments). An individual will only be considered "under a disability" if her impairment is so severe that she is both unable to do her previous work and unable to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c (a)(3)(B).

"Substantial gainful work" is defined as "work that exists in significant numbers either in the region where the individual lives or in several regions of the country." Id. Work may be considered "substantial" even if it is done on a part-time basis, if less money is earned, or if work responsibilities are lessened from previous employment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a) (OASDI); 20 C.F.R. § 416.972(a)(SSI). Work may be considered "gainful" if it is the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. §§ 404.1572(b) and 416.972(b). Furthermore, "substantial gainful work" is considered available to an individual regardless of whether such work exists in his immediate area, whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether she would be hired if she were to apply for work. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

When a claimant requests a Social Security disability hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, SSA regulations require the ALJ to perform a five-step sequential evaluation. Pursuant to this analysis:

(i) if the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, she is not disabled;

(ii) if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, her impairment(s) must be "severe" before she can be found to be disabled;

(iii) if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a "severe" impairment (or impairments) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and her impairment (or impairments) meets or medically equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry

(iv) if the claimant's impairment (or impairments) does not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, she is not disabled;

(v) even if the claimant's impairment or impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates her residual functional capacity and vocational factors, she is not disabled.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v) and 416.920(a)(4)(I)-(v). The ALJ in this case performed the required five-step evaluation and determined that: (I) the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since her alleged disability onset date of April 16, 1998; (ii) the plaintiff had medically determinable impairments that included a history of coronary artery disease, lumbar radiculopathy at L5-S1, nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy with macular edema bilaterally, vitreous hemorrhage of the right eye and status post tri-malleolar fracture of the right ankle; (iii) the plaintiffs impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 and; (iv) the plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work as a cashier or travel agent but could perform her past relevant work as a secretary (Tr. 16-21).

III. The evidence in the record demonstrates that Plaintiff is disabled.

The record indicates that plaintiff underwent an angioplasty in 1985 and triple bypass surgery in 1998 (see Tr. 130-35). On April 14, 1998, plaintiff underwent a selective coronary angiography and left vent riculography via the right femoral artery (Tr. 119). At that time, Dr. John P Visco at the Buffalo Angiographic Associates diagnosed her with significant severe triple vessel coronary artery disease, hypertension, and a positive stress test; he also noted that she had recurrent angina pectoris (Tr. 119-35). On December 15, 1999, Dr. Laurie L. Hill, a cardiologist, concluded that plaintiff exhibited left ventricular hypertrophy, aortic sclerosis, mild left atrial enlargement, and possible mild diastolic dysfunction (Tr. 176). July 24, 2008, Dr. Hill determined that plaintiff had severe coronary artery disease (Tr. 169). On August 22, 2000, Dr. Hill noted that plaintiff had a mild reduction in exercise tolerance.

Plaintiff has a well-documented history of visual impairments. On May 22, 2001, Dr. Neelakshi Bhagat, an ophthalmologist, diagnosed plaintiff with diabetic retinopathy in both eyes and significant macular edema in both eyes (Tr. 183-187). In examinations dated November 30, 2001, December 14, 2001, January 15, 2002, January 22, 2002, February 19, 2002, April 16, 2002 and May 28, 2002, plaintiff complained to her treating physician, Dr. Montag, of "black cobwebs," "blurred vision," "black floaters or dots," and a "film" over her eyes (Tr. 325, 329, 331, 333, 337, 339, 341). As of the date of her administrative hearing, plaintiff had undergone eight laser eye treatments by Dr. Montag in an attempt to correct these impairments (Tr. 377).

In a July 25, 2002 a residual functional capacity ("RFC") evaluation was performed by plaintiffs primary care physician, Dr. Yasin, who considered plaintiffs documented visual impairments in his assessment (Tr....

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