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Robin S. Cahill v. Michael J. Astrue

August 29, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge


(Docs. 11, 16)

Plaintiff Robin Cahill brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting review and reversal of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 11), and the Commissioner's Motion to affirm (Doc. 16). For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Cahill's motion and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.


Cahill was forty-seven years old on the alleged disability onset date of March 15, 2009. (AR 30, 153.) Cahill completed high school and has taken at least one additional computer course. (AR 29.) She has been employed in a number of positions, including caregiver, cabinet maker, cashier, newspaper carrier, and milker. (AR 29, 206.) Cahill stopped working due to chronic back pain, as well as pain in her right shoulder, neck, and knees. (AR 30.)

In July 2009, Cahill filed applications for social security income and disability insurance benefits. (AR 151, 153.) During the administrative hearing, Cahill stated that she aggravated her right shoulder while working as a caregiver when a patient fell and pulled on her arm. (AR 32.) Cahill also explained that she left that job in March 2009 when she was found guilty by the Board of Nursing of abuse and neglect after she had a disagreement with a patient and left work early. (AR 33, 410.) Cahill's disability application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 75-99.)

On January 21, 2011, Administrative Law Judge Thomas Merrill ("the ALJ") conducted a hearing on Cahill's application. (AR 25-55.) Cahill, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (AR 27.) On February 3, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding Cahill not disabled under the Social Security Act. (AR 18.) Thereafter, the Decision Review Board selected the ALJ's decision for review, but did not do so during the time allowed. (AR 1.) As a result, the ALJ's decision became final. (Id.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Cahill commenced this lawsuit on June 14, 2011. (See Doc. 4.)

ALJ Determination

The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate disability claims. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 380-81 (2d Cir. 2004). The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in "substantial gainful activity" ("SGA"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not so engaged, step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a "severe impairment." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the ALJ finds that the claimant has a severe impairment, the third step requires the ALJ to make a determination as to whether the claimant's impairment "meets or equals" an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). The claimant is presumptively disabled if the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).

If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the fourth step requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") precludes the performance of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). The fifth and final step commands that the ALJ determine whether the claimant can do "any other work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). The claimant bears the burden of proving his or her case at steps one through four, Butts, 388 F.3d at 383; and at step five, there is a "limited burden shift to the Commissioner" to "show that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do," Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (clarifying that the burden shift to the Commissioner at step five is limited, and the Commissioner "need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's [RFC]").

Employing this sequential analysis, the ALJ first determined that Cahill had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2009, her alleged onset date. (AR 12.) Next, the ALJ found that Cahill had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, right shoulder bursitis, depression, and status post right knee surgery. (Id.) At step three, however, the ALJ found that Cahill did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 13.) The ALJ then determined that Cahill had the RFC to perform "light work," as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b),*fn1 "allowing for occasional pushing, pulling, and overhead reaching with the right upper extremity; simple and routine three-step tasks performed for periods up to two hours at a time; and occasional supervised interaction with others." (AR 14.) Finally, the ALJ determined that Cahill could perform her past relevant work as a cashier and newspaper delivery person. (AR 17.) The ALJ proceeded to step five and alternatively determined, based on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), that other jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Cahill could perform. (AR 17-18.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Cahill had not been under a disability since the alleged onset date of March 15, 2009. (AR 18.)

Standard of Review

The Social Security Act defines the term "disability" 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). A person will be found disabled only if it is determined that 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 reviewing a Commissioner's disability decision, the court limits its inquiry to a "review [of] the administrative record de novo to determine whether there is substantial evidence supporting the . . . decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard." Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A court's factual review of the Commissioner's decision is restricted to determining whether "substantial evidence" exists in the record to support such decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). "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 (1971); Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938); Poupore, 566 F.3d at 305.

Although the reviewing court's role in reviewing the Commissioner's disability decision is "quite limited[,] and substantial deference is to be afforded [that] decision," Hernandez v. Barnhart, No. 05-9586, 2007 WL 2710388, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 18, 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted), the Social Security Act "must be construed liberally because it is a remedial statute that is intended to include, rather than exclude, potential recipients of benefits," Jones v. Apfel,66 F. Supp. 2d 518, 522 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Dousewicz v. Harris, 646 F.2d 771, 773 (2d Cir. 1981) ("In its deliberations the District Court should consider the fact that the Social Security Act is a remedial statute to be broadly construed and liberally applied.").


I. The ALJ's Consideration of Record Evidence

Cahill claims that the ALJ committed reversible error when he mischaracterized facts relevant to her medical condition and activities. (Doc. 11 at 17.) Specifically, she contends that the record evidence demonstrates that she participated in treatment for her impairments and could only perform ...

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