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Carol Cascio v. Michael J. Astrue

January 17, 2012


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


Plaintiff Carol Cascio seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her 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 decision is affirmed; accordingly, the Commissioner's motion is granted and Cascio's complaint is dismissed.


Cascio claims that she suffers from a variety of impairments, including neck, leg and lower back pain, herniated discs, hearing loss, depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. She filed an application for supplemental security income on April 16, 2008. After the Social Security Administration denied her application, Cascio requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Cascio meets the insured status requirements of the Act. Next, applying the familiar five-step process, the ALJ first found that Cascio had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 12, 2007. Second, the ALJ found that three of Cascio's impairments-- back impairment, neck impairment and depressive disorder-- "barely meet the de minimus test" for severity. A.R. at 13. The ALJ found that Cascio's remaining impairments, such as anxiety and hearing loss, were not medically determinable "severe impairments." Id. Third, the ALJ considered whether Cascio's impairments met the criteria listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 and found that they did not. The ALJ stated that "[n]o treating or examining physician has mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairment." A.R. at 13. Fourth, the ALJ determined that Cascio had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform at least the full range of sedentary work. Finally, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Cascio can perform. The ALJ relied upon the Medical-Vocational Guidelines contained in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 as a framework for his decision-making. He found that based upon Cascio's age, education and previous work experience, Medical-Vocational Rule 201.28 compelled a finding that Cascio was not disabled.

On January 19, 2010, the ALJ issued his decision concluding that Cascio is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. On October 29, 2010 the Appeals Council denied her request for review, rendering the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits final. Cascio timely sought judicial review.


"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)). While the plaintiff bears the burden of proof for the first four steps of the inquiry, 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).

Cascio challenges the Commissioner's decision on the following grounds: (1) that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule when he did not give controlling weight to the opinion of Cascio's treating physicians, Dr. Vinod Dhar, Dr. Robert Donadt and Dr. Khalid Hassan, or to the opinions of Cascio's treating physical therapists, Michael DiStefano and Rodene Ivan Cortes; (2) that the ALJ's RFC evaluation was not supported by substantial evidence because the medical record reflected Cascio's "inability to deal with stress"; (3) that the ALJ's determination that some of Cascio's impairments were not "severe impairments" is not supported by substantial evidence because he "chose to ignore" some of Cascio's physical impairments; (4) that the ALJ failed to list specific jobs in the national economy that Cascio can perform; and (5) that the ALJ improperly rejected Cascio's testimony regarding her subjective pain and suffering. Pl's Mem. of Law at 14.

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)).

Cascio contends that the ALJ "failed to provide any adequate basis" for considering the opinion of a consulting physician, Dr. Lauree Mitchell, rather than the opinion of Dr. Dhar. Cascio further argues that the ALJ "essentially ignore[d]" the opinions of her other treating physicians, Dr. Donadt and Dr. Hassan. Pl's Mem. of Law at 14. Finally, Cascio contends that the ALJ incorrectly refused to consider the findings of two treating physical therapists.

Contrary to Cascio's argument, the ALJ did provide good reasons for his decision to not give controlling weight to Dr. Dahr's opinion about Cascio's mental limitations, explaining that Dr. Dahr's opinions were inconsistent with the bulk of clinical findings and objective testing in the record. The ALJ further stated that Dr. Dahr's opinion on Cascio's mental limitations was contradicted by his own statement that Cascio could "manage her benefits." A.R. at 19. In general, "the opinion of the treating physician is not afforded controlling weight where. . . the treating physician issued opinions that are not consistent with other substantial evidence in the record, such as the opinions of other medical experts." Halloran, 262 F.3d at 32; see Veino v. Barnhart 312 F.3d 578, 588 (2d Cir. 2002) ("Genuine conflicts in the medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve"). The ALJ is not obligated to consider the treating physician's opinion in a vacuum; where, as here, the complete record contradicts that physician's findings, the ALJ may properly deny the treating physician's opinion controlling weight.

In addition, the ALJ did not reject the opinion of Dr. Donadt, and briefly summarized the available medical records from the two-year period during which Dr. Donadt treated Cascio. Although Cascio takes issue with the ALJ "mentioning [Dr. Donadt] in only three lines of his decision,"the opinion clearly shows that the ALJ reviewed Dr. Donadt's assessment and took those medical records into account. Pl's Mem. of Law at 14. Dr. Donadt treated Cascio for only one of her many ailments, cervical and lumbar spine derangement; it was reasonable for the ALJ to spend only a short portion of his ...

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