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Nelson J. Matta v. Michael J. Astrue

October 18, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Block, Senior District Judge:


Plaintiff Nelson J. Matta ("Matta") seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for benefits under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Both parties move for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Matta's complaint is dismissed.


Matta, who is mentally ill, filed an application for supplemental security income on January 5, 2007. After his initial application was denied, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

Applying the familiar five-step process, the ALJ first found that Matta had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 5, 2007. Second, the ALJ evaluated Matta's claimed medical impairments, and found that his bipolar disorder was a "severe impairment" that "affect[ed] the claimant's ability to function mentally." A.R. at 14. Third, the ALJ considered whether Matta's impairment met the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and found that it did not. The ALJ stated that the criteria for Affective Disorder (listing 12.04) were not satisfied because Matta's mental impairment did not result in "marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration."*fn1 A.R. at 14. Fourth, the ALJ determined that Matta had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at all exertional levels with non-exertional limitations: "simple, routine, low stress and unskilled tasks, which involve no more than minimal contact with co-workers, supervisors and the general public." A.R. at 15. The ALJ found that in light of those limitations Matta could not perform any of his past relevant work. Finally, 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) (to satisfy his burden at this step the Commissioner "need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's residual functional capacity"). The ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Matta can perform, for example landscape laborer, hand packer, electric screwdriver operator and electric sealing machine operator.

Based on the foregoing findings the ALJ concluded that Matta was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. On September 22, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Matta's request for review, thereby rendering the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits final. Matta timely sought judicial review.

II "In reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner, a district court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 384 (2d Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

Matta challenges the Commissioner's decision on three grounds: (1) that the ALJ failed to give controlling weight to the opinion of his treating physician; (2) that the medical record supports a finding that Matta meets the criteria for Affective Disorders; and (3) that the medical record supports a finding that Matta was unable to perform the mental demands of work. The Court addresses those arguments in turn.

A. Treating Physician Rule

According to the treating physician rule, "the opinion of a claimant's treating physician as to the nature or severity of the impairment is given 'controlling weight' so long as it 'is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory or diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.'" Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404. 1527 (d)(2)). "When the opinions of treating physicians are rejected, the Commissioner must 'always give good reasons. . . for the weight' given to those opinions." Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 503-04 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)).

Matta contends that the ALJ "did not correctly weigh the opinion of Nelson's treating psychiatrist, Julio Riascos." Riascos opined that Matta remained at risk for a manic or psychotic episode, had marked impairments in social functioning and daily living activities and would find it difficult to keep a job because of his symptoms. Riascos was only one of multiple treating sources. Matta testified that he "had several doctors since [he] was first admitted to Elmhurst Hospital," and listed three doctors who treated him prior to Riascos. A.R. at 37. The ALJ gave Riascos's report "little weight because it was not supported by mental status examination findings, progress notes, and 'other evidence of record when viewed as a whole.'" Pl's Mem. of Law at 14.

The ALJ's reasons for rejecting Riascos's assessment were sound. Riascos's report was inconsistent with the reports obtained from Elmhurst Hospital, where Matta received regular treatment from many different treating physicians. Those records showed that Matta's psychotic disorder responded to medication and group therapy and that Matta was calm, without significant limitations in concentration, motivation and social skills. Acknowledging that Riascos's assessment covers only one period of Matta's extended illness, and that other psychiatric specialists worked closely with Matta during his frequent visits to Elmhurst Hospital, the ALJ reasonably determined that Riascos's findings were not entitled to any special weight. The ALJ therefore did not violate the treating physician rule.

B. Criteria for Affective Disorders

An ALJ's determination that a claimant's condition is not medically equivalent to a listed impairment must be a "reasonable interpretation of the medical evidence in the record." Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59, 65 (2d Cir. 1999). Matta contends that based upon Riascos's assessment, it is evident that he meets the listed requirements for Affective Disorders and that the ALJ's determination to the contrary is not supported by substantial evidence. As discussed above, ...

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