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April 21, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harold Baer, Jr., United States District Judge.

Plaintiff has moved for a judgment on the pleadings, and defendant has cross-moved for remand to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is granted and defendant's cross-motion is denied.


A. Procedural history

Blanca Corretjer ("Plaintiff" or "Ms. Corretjer") first applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") from the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on June 24, 1997. See Transcript of Record of Proceedings Relating to Blanca Corretjer [hereinafter "Tr."] 66-78. This request was denied initially, but subsequently she was granted a hearing, which was held on May 19, 1998, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael P. Friedman. The ALJ denied her request in a report dated July 30, 1998, see Tr. 43-57, and the Appeals Council denied her request for review. See Tr. 7-9. Ms. Corretjer again applied for SSI on February 26, 1999, see Tr. 547-59, and she was deemed to be disabled as of March 1, 1999, in a decision dated March 29, 2000. See Tr. 26-40.

In the case at bar, Ms. Corretjer contends that the denial of her first application was in error and now seeks benefits for the period between her first and second applications. In particular, she contends that ALJ Friedman failed to properly credit the opinion of Ms. Corretjer's treating physician. That information provided a psychological diagnosis and discussed the materiality of her substance abuse as it related to her psychological impairments. According to Ms. Corretjer, the ALJ instead relied on his own lay opinion about her substance abuse and concluded it was material to her disability and therefore she was ineligible for SSI. She also contends that the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the issue of materiality and failed to carry it. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ correctly declined to grant controlling weight to the opinion of Ms. Corretjer's treating physician and that the Commissioner need not shoulder the burden of proof with respect to materiality. However, the Commissioner concedes that it was error for the ALJ to rely on the medical-vocational guidelines (or "grids"), 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P., App. 2, in this instance because Ms. Corretjer had both exertional and non-exertional limitations,*fn1 but argues that the proper recourse here is to remand to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of the 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g)*fn2 for a new hearing with testimony from a medical expert and vocational expert about Ms. Corretjer's substance abuse and her ability to work prior to March 1999.

B. Standard of Review/Jurisdiction

The Court is authorized pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g) to set aside a final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security only if that determination "is based upon legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence." See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998)). "A district court may reverse the Commissioner's finding and award benefits only if application of the correct legal standard could lead to only one conclusion." Molina v. Barnhart, No. 00 Civ. 9522, 2002 WL 377529, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 11, 2002) (citations and internal quotations and alterations omitted). A court may also remand to the Commissioner for additional proceedings if "there is new evidence which is material and . . . there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding." See 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g). Remand is inappropriate when "the record provides persuasive proof of disability and a remand for further evidentiary proceedings would serve no purpose." See Parker v. Harris, 626 F.2d 225, 235 (2d Cir. 1980).


A. The Plaintiff's Background

Ms. Corretjer was born in Puerto Rico on February 14, 1950, and practically from birth has had a life filled with significant trauma. She was raised in an abusive and dysfunctional family, in which her parents never expressed or showed any affection towards her. She was sexually molested at the age of 5 by a 15-year-old cousin. She attempted suicide in 1976 while still living in Puerto Rico and again in 1980. She was married at 16, had two children, and was divorced at 25. She came to the United States in 1976 and in 1988 witnessed the murder of her boyfriend.

Ms. Corretjer also has a long history of substance dependence, interspersed with efforts at detoxification. She had been on methadone since 1990, and she was treated at Hempstead Hospital for drug and alcohol detoxification in November 1996. See Tr. 146-168. Between October 1997 and April 1998, she was hospitalized on three occasions for psychiatric treatment and detoxification. Threatening to shoot herself, she was admitted to Mt. Sinai Medical Center on October 31, 1997. See Tr. 238, 251, 266. Her admitting diagnoses included major depression, dysthymia, and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and she was treated for drug and alcohol detoxification. See Tr. 256, 261, 269. After this hospitalization, she was enrolled in Mt. Sinai's Mentally Ill Chemically Addicted Day Treatment Program ("MICA DTP") and Transitional Employment Plan ("TEP"). See Tr. 273, 278, 282. Her diagnosis upon enrollment was major depressive episode, recurrent; PTSD; and polysubstance dependence. See Tr. 452. She continued in this intensive program 5 days a week 4 hours per day until June 1998. While enrolled at the MICA DTP, she was treated by. among others, Dr. Anthony Giovanniello. See Tr. 226.

She was hospitalized for a second time at Mt. Sinai in late December 1997 due to alcohol and drug relapse and suicidal ideation and depressed mood. See Tr. 391, 440-41. The primary diagnosis on admission was recurrent depression, severe, and the secondary diagnoses included alcohol and cocaine dependence and prolonged PTSD. See Tr. 383. At discharge, her summary listed polysubstance dependence, major depression disorder, and PTSD. See Tr. 390. Her third hospitalization at Mt. Sinai was in early March 1998 and she presented similarly. Ms. Corretjer was brought to the hospital by her sister, after she had cut her wrists. Her discharge record listed alcohol and cocaine dependence and substance induced mood disorder. See Tr. 311.

B. The ALJ's determination

The ALJ had before him allegations that Ms. Corretjer was disabled due to a back injury and to a mental disability. The ALJ concluded that under the five-step test for evaluating disability claims,*fn3 Ms. Corretjer was not disabled. See Tr. 46-57. Relying on Ms. Corretjer's record of hospitalizations for treatment of depression and substance abuse and on her treating physician's opinion that she is unable to function in a work setting because of her PTSD and suicidal gestures, the ALJ found that "she has a disability satisfying the severity/duration standards," see Tr. 51, but concluded that her substance abuse was material to her disability,*fn4 and that the extent of her mental disability without drugs was such that she could not deal with more than low work-place stress. See Tr. 56. Finally, the ALJ found that she could not do her past work because of her back limitation, but nevertheless ...

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