DECISION AND ORDER
CHARLES J. SIRAGUSA, District Judge.
This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") which denied the application of Plaintiff for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits. Now before the Court is Plaintiff's motion (ECF No.14) for judgment on the pleadings and Defendant's cross-motion (ECF No. 15) for the same relief. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's application is denied, and Defendant's application is granted.
STANDARDS OF LAW
The Commissioner decides applications for disability benefits using a five-step sequential evaluation process:
Colvin v. Berryhill, 734 F. App'x 756, 758 (2d Cir. 2018) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
An unsuccessful claimant may bring an action in federal district court to challenge the Commissioner's denial of the disability claim. In such an action, "[t]he court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g) (West). Further, Section 405(g) states, in relevant part, that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."
The issue to be determined by the court is whether the Commissioner's conclusions "are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or are based on an erroneous legal standard." Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998); see also, Barnaby v. Berryhill, 773 F. App'x 642, 643 (2d Cir. 2019) ("[We] will uphold the decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied.") (citing Zabala v. Astrue, 595 F.3d 402, 408 (2d Cir. 2010) and Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012).").
"First, the [c]ourt reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard." Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999); see also, Pollard v. Halter, 377 F.3d 183, 189 (2d Cir. 2004) ("[W]here an error of law has been made that might have affected the disposition of the case, this court cannot fulfill its statutory and constitutional duty to review the decision of the administrative agency by simply deferring to the factual findings of the [administrative law judge] [("]ALJ[)"]. Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal.") (citation omitted).
If the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, the court next "examines the record to determine if the Commissioner's conclusions are supported by substantial evidence." Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d at 773. Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citation omitted).
Banyai v. Berryhill, 767 F. App'x 176, 177 (2d Cir. 2019), as amended (Apr. 30, 2019) (internal quotation marks omitted).
In applying this standard, a court is not permitted to re-weigh the evidence. See, Krull v. Colvin, 669 F. App'x 31, 32 (2d Cir. 2016) ("Krull's disagreement is with the ALJ's weighing of the evidence, but the deferential standard of review prevents us from reweighing it."); see also, Riordan v. Barnhart, No. 06 CIV 4773 AKH, 2007 WL 1406649, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2007) ("The court does not engage in a de novo determination of whether or not the claimant is disabled, but instead determines whether correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision of the Commissioner.") (citations omitted).
FACTUAL and PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The reader is presumed to be familiar with the facts and procedural history of this action. he Court will refer to the record only as necessary to rule on the alleged errors identified by Plaintiff.
In the administrative proceedings before the Commissioner, Plaintiff, who previously worked for approximately ten years as a habilitation specialist,
On May 30, 2019, after Plaintiff's claim was denied initially, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing, at which Plaintiff appeared with an attorney. The ALJ took testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE").
On June 17, 2019, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time between the alleged disability-onset date and the date of the decision. Tr. 27-37. The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation and found, in pertinent part, that Plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of "sarcoidosis, degenerative disc disease and skin rash," and non-severe impairments including hypertension, hernias, obstructive sleep apnea and obesity. Tr. 29-31.
Tr. 32. The ALJ found that with such RFC, Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a habilitation specialist, but could perform several specific light-exertional jobs in the national economy which the VE had identified. Tr. 35-36. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled.
With regard to the RFC finding, the ALJ stated, in pertinent part, that he had evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints, concerning the limiting effects of her symptoms, in accordance with the Commissioner's regulations and found that they were not entirely consistent with the record as a whole, including the medical opinion evidence. The ALJ observed, for example, that Plaintiff claimed to be "in constant pain, primarily from her back, and to be unable to sit or stand for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Tr. 32-33. The ALJ further noted that Plaintiff claimed to often feel tired and fatigued. Tr. 33. The ALJ explained, however, why he felt that the evidence overall did not support limitations greater than those contained in the RFC finding, limiting Plaintiff to light work with additional restrictions intended to address her specific non-exertional limitations. Tr. 32-35. In doing so, the ALJ discussed various pieces of evidence that he found were inconsistent with Plaintiff's subjective complaints. Tr. 32-35.
Particularly regarding the 10% off-task limitation, the ALJ reviewed the medical opinion evidence concerning Plaintiff's ability to pay attention and concentrate. The ALJ noted, for example, that consultative examiner Christine Ransom, Ph.D. ("Ransom"), had found that Plaintiff's attention and concentration were intact. Tr. 30 ("The claimant contended that she has limitations in concentrating and focusing generally (Hearing Testimony). [But,] [a] consultative examination also revealed the claimant's attention and concentration were intact (9F/s)."); see also, id. at 31 (Mentioning "Dr. Ransom's findings of normal mood, affect, concentration, memory, and cognitive functioning[.]").
Nevertheless, the ALJ indicated that he was including the 10% off-task limitation based on Plaintiff's hearing testimony, which he partially credited:
Tr. 34. In other words, the ALJ reached an RFC finding concerning Plaintiff's ability to remain on-task that was arguably more restrictive (i.e., more favorable to Plaintiff) than what had been indicated by the medical evidence alone. See, e.g., Tr. 34 ("I find that the evidence supports greater limitations than given in [the state agency medical consultant's] findings.").
Plaintiff's subject action in federal court is focused solely on the aspect of the RFC finding indicating that she could be off task up to 10% of the day. Specifically, Plaintiff maintains that remand is required since the ALJ did not sufficiently explain why she would be off-task only 10% of the time, as opposed to some greater or lesser amount of time. Indeed, Plaintiff asserts that there is no evidence of record from which the ALJ could have made that finding, and that the RFC finding is therefore not supported by substantial evidence. Notably, on that point, Plaintiff insists that when an ALJ makes a "highly specific" RFC finding, such as a finding that a claimant will be "off task" for a particular percentage of the time, such finding must be directly supported by some evidence, specifically medical opinion evidence, otherwise the finding will amount to the ALJ's mere "surmise."
Defendant disputes Plaintiff's arguments and maintains that the ALJ's decision is free of reversible legal error and supported by substantial evidence. More specifically, Defendant rejects Plaintiff's contention that a highly specific RFC finding must be supported by medical opinion evidence, and asserts that the ALJ here properly made his RFC finding based on Plaintiff's hearing testimony:
ECF No. 15-1 at p. 2. Defendant further maintains that Plaintiff failed to show that she would be off-task more than ten percent of the time. The Court has carefully reviewed and considered the parties' submissions.
The ALJ's Alleged Erroneous Highly Specific RFC Finding
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's "highly specific" RFC finding's "time off-task" component is erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence since it amounts only to the ALJ's "surmise." In that regard, Plaintiff maintains that a "highly specific" RFC finding, meaning one indicating that a claimant can perform activities for a particular length of time, must be supported by specific medical opinion evidence. Alternatively, Plaintiff contends that the 10% off-task limitation is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. However, the Court disagrees.
The general principles concerning the ALJ's function in making an RFC finding are well settled, including the principle that an ALJ's RFC finding need not perfectly correspond to any particular medical opinion, but instead should be consistent with based all of the credible relevant evidence:
Violet-Maria R. v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:19-CV-0999 (CJS), 2021 WL 1169186, at *4 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2021); see also, Matta v. Astrue, 508 F. App'x 53, 56 (2d Cir. 2013) (Rejecting argument that ALJ had improperly substituted his medical judgment for expert opinion, stating that: "Although the ALJ's conclusion may not perfectly correspond with any of the opinions of medical sources cited in his decision, he was entitled to weigh all of the evidence available to make an RFC finding that was consistent with the record as a whole."); Camille v. Colvin, 652 F. App'x 25, 29 n. 5 (2d Cir. 2016) ("The ALJ used Dr. Kamin's opinion as the basis for the RFC but incorporated additional limitations based on, inter alia, the testimony of Camille that she credited. An ALJ may accept parts of a doctor's opinion and reject others.") (citations omitted).
As mentioned earlier, the Commissioner acknowledges that the 10% off-task limitation is not based on any medical opinion, but, rather, is based on Plaintiff's testimony. Plaintiff, however, insists that the 10% limitation cannot be based on her testimony, since she testified that her pain was far worse than what could be accommodated by a 10% off-task limitation.
For the reasons discussed above, Plaintiff's motion (ECF No.14) for judgment on the pleadings is denied, and Defendant's cross-motion (ECF No. 15) for the same relief is granted. The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment for Defendant and close this action.