The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge
Plaintiff Gregory Jackson ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act ("the Act") seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI").
The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) ("Rule 12(c)") on the grounds that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision was supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff opposes the Commissioner's motion and cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), on grounds that the Commissioner's decision was erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence in the record. For the reasons set forth below, I hereby deny the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings, grant Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and remand this case to the Social Security Administration for calculation and payment of benefits.
On March 5, 2003, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI alleging disability beginning January 5, 2001. On May 23, 2003, Plaintiff's application was denied. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing on July 22, 2003. Approximately four years later, on June 26, 2007, Plaintiff appeared at a video hearing before ALJ Jan K. Michalski. In a decision dated July, 26, 2007, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments, but he retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with certain limitations. Two years later, on July 29, 2009, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision after the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Upon the denial by the Appeals Council, Plaintiff timely filed the instant action.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Additionally, the section directs that when considering such a claim, the Court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as, "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 217 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the Court's scope of review to determining whether or not the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence. See Mongeur v. Heckler 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (finding that a reviewing Court does not try a benefits case de novo). The Court is also authorized to review the legal standards employed by the Commissioner in evaluating plaintiff's claim.
The Court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Lynn v. Schweiker, 565 F. Supp. 265, 267 (S.D. Tex. 1983) (citation omitted). The Commissioner asserts that his decision was reasonable and is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c). Judgment on the pleadings may be granted under Rule 12(c) where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2d Cir. 1988). If, after a review of the pleadings, the Court is convinced that Plaintiff has not plead a plausible claim for relief, judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).
The ALJ's decision denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on errors of law.
In her decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). The ALJ adhered to the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential analysis in determining disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity at Step Two, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a severe impairment which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers from an impairment that is listed in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of the Social Security Regulations, pursuant to Step Three of the analysis, the claimant will be considered disabled without considering other factors. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the ALJ will move to Step Four of the analysis and determine whether or not the claimant, despite his impairments, retains the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform any past work, at Step Five of the analysis, the ALJ will determine whether the claimant can perform other work in the local or national economy.
Here, at Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of January 5, 2001. (Transcript of Administrative Proceedings at 18 ("Tr."). At Steps Two and Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments, which include disorders of the back (discogenic and degenerative), affective disorders, depression, and drug addiction/alcohol abuse, were "severe" within the meaning of the Regulations. However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal, either singly or in combination, any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P. (Tr. at 18).
Under Steps Four and Five of the sequential analysis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work within the meaning of the regulations with the following limitations: he can do no climbing of ropes/ladders/scaffolds and must have limited contact with the general public. (Tr. at 20). At Step Four, the ALJ found that even without the drug addiction/alcohol abuse, Plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (Tr. at 22). At Step Five, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, and absent drug addiction/alcohol abuse, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff can perform. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work at light, low stress, routine jobs. (Tr. at 22).
The Treating Physician's Rule
A thorough examination of the record demonstrates that William S. Beckett, M.D., and Berthollet Bavibidila, M.D., two of the Plaintiff's treating physicians, rendered opinions which should have been given controlling weight under the treating physician rule. Pertinent evaluations from each physician's course of treatment with the Plaintiff are discussed below.
Plaintiff has an extensive well-documented treatment history with Dr. Beckett. Between August 2001 and January 2005, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Beckett approximately twenty times. Plaintiff first presented to Dr. Beckett on August 7, 2001. At this initial examination, Dr. Beckett documented an extensive history of Plaintiff's condition, noting the existence of a back problem with origins from his work performing manual labor at the Town of Gates Highway Department. (Tr. at 206). After conducting a physical examination, Dr. Beckett opined that Plaintiff had persistent low back pain and pain in his calf concluding that Plaintiff was temporarily permanently disabled. (Id.).
After conducting a physical examination on October 23, 2001, Dr. Beckett opined that Plaintiff had symptomatic lumbar degenerative disc disease and thromboembolism*fn1 in the left femoral artery. (Tr. at 201). On, November 28, 2001, while seeking treatment for the degenerative disc disease and blood clot, Dr. Beckett opined that Plaintiff had reached "maximum medical improvement" and had a "moderate 50% permanent partial disability of the spine due to work-related degenerative disc disease." (Tr. at 199-200). Dr. Beckett encouraged him to seek job training so that he could work within his restriction. (Id.).
After seeing Plaintiff on December 12, 2001 and March 12, 2002, Plaintiff presented to Dr. Beckett on June 3, 2002. After physical examination, Dr. Beckett opined that Plaintiff had degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, a left ankle sprain, intermittent pain and locking in his left elbow, and pain in his calf. On July 8, 2002, Dr. Beckett noted that Plaintiff had been following his treatment program and was in stable condition. Plaintiff was given a work slip to return to work for a trial run without limitations. (Tr. at 194). On July 19, 2002, after attempting to return to unrestricted work, Plaintiff returned to Dr. Beckett exhibiting a recurrence of his work-related back injury. (Tr. at 193). Dr. Beckett concluded that it would not be "safe for him" to return to work in that current position. (Id.). According to Dr. Beckett, Plaintiff was still partially disabled. (Id.).
Dr. Beckett examined Plaintiff on August 5, 2002, and found that Plaintiff had an exacerbation of degenerative disc disease of the spine related to his work injury and that Plaintiff was still temporarily disabled. (Tr. at 192). On September 19, 2002, Plaintiff presented to Dr. Beckett and was given a permanent work restriction due to Plaintiff's maximum medical improvement regarding the degenerative disc disease of the spine. (Tr. at 190). Plaintiff had a moderate marked 50% permanent partial disability of the lumbar spine, with a 15 pound lifting restriction. (Id.). His work restrictions were as follows: He must be able to stand or walk at will and without uninterrupted sitting, no long distance walking, limited bending, squatting and stooping; no crawling, climbing heights, or kneeling, lifting restriction of no more than 15 pounds, and pushing and pulling restrictions of no more than 50 pounds. At this point, Plaintiff also had a mild 7.5% permanent partial disability of the right ankle, and a mild 10% permanent partial disability of the left elbow. (Tr. at 191).
On November 18, 2002, Plaintiff was evaluated by Dr. Beckett for his degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, thromboembolism of the left femoral artery, ankle sprain, and elbow pain. (Tr. at 188). However, Dr. Beckett noted that Plaintiff "is now presenting with new symptoms of depression, which I believe are due to chronic pain and loss of function." (Id.). Plaintiff was referred to a social worker for his "reactive depression due to pain and loss of function." (Id.).
On April 21, 2003, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Beckett who made two new observations. First, Plaintiff had a new diagnosis of diabetes. Second, Dr. Beckett stated "[m]ost important now is treatment of [Plaintiff's] depression, which is in part related to his work-related injury, but for which he has a previous history."(Tr. at 186). He referred Plaintiff to Park Ridge Hospital Mental Health for psychological and psychiatric treatment. (Id.) On June 11, 2003, during a follow-up ...