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Irma Bynum v. Michael J. Astrue

May 3, 2013

IRMA BYNUM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Irma Bynum 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 Bynum's complaint is dismissed.

I.

This case has a lengthy procedural history. As a result of work-related accidents in 1994 and 1996, Bynum injured her back, leg, hand, wrist, shoulders, knee, and ankle. On May 20, 1999, Bynum filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), alleging disability as of May 22, 1996. After the Social Security Administration denied her applications, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On February 12, 2001, ALJ Seymour Fier concluded that Bynum was not disabled. AR 10-19.*fn1 The Appeals Council denied Bynum's request for review, prompting her to seek judicial review. Judge Gleeson granted the Commissioner's motion to remand for further proceedings, finding that ALJ Fier failed to develop the record as to the inconsistent opinions of Dr. Malik M. P. Akhtar, a treating physician, and finding that evidentiary gaps existed as to Bynum's hospital visits. See Bynum v. Barnhart, 02-cv-3443 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2003); AR 315-23.

Upon remand, ALJ Fier conducted a hearing, which Bynum did not attend. On June 21, 2006, he determined that Bynum was not disabled. AR 328-36. The Appeals Council, however, vacated this decision and remanded the case to a different ALJ on the grounds that there was no indication that contact procedures were followed when Bynum did not appear at her hearing or that any attempt was made to obtain the missing hospital records. AR 337-41.

Following this remand, ALJ Hazel Strauss conducted two more hearings*fn2 and then concluded, on May 26, 2009, that Bynum was not disabled. AR 298-313.*fn3 The Appeals Council again remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. AR 373-41. The Appeals Council found that ALJ Strauss did not evaluate Bynum's obesity, improperly determined that Bynum could perform past work as an electrical assembler even though she had not performed that work within the applicable 15-year period for purposes of SSI benefits, and did not adequately question the vocational expert about available work. AR 375-76.

After this third remand, ALJ Strauss conducted a final hearing and concluded on September 3, 2010 that Bynum was not disabled. Applying the familiar five-step process, the ALJ found that: (1) Bynum had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 22, 1996, the alleged onset date; (2) her lumbar disc disease qualified as a severe impairment, while her cervical spine disease, obesity,*fn4 and alleged impairments to the shoulders, ankles, and hands did not, AR 250; (3) her impairment did not meet the criteria listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and (4) she "is capable of performing past relevant work as an electrical assembler and bank teller as the work is generally performed," AR 260.*fn5

The final conclusion was based on the ALJ finding that Bynum "has the residual functional capacity to perform light work or work that involves lifting/carrying 20 to 25 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, standing, walking and sitting 6 out of 8 hours." AR 251. In addition, the ALJ found that Bynum "should avoid frequent repetitive bending, can occasionally crouch, stoop, crawl and kneel," and "should avoid working in cold and damp environments." AR 251. The ALJ also noted that Bynum "does not have any limitations for fingering and grasping, has no upper extremity limitations in manipulation," and "does not have communication or visual limitations." AR 251.

The Appeals Council denied Bynum's request for review, rendering the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits final. Bynum 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)). Bynum challenges ALJ Strauss's disability determination, arguing that the Commissioner erred by (A) violating the treating physician rule, and (B) improperly crediting the opinions of certain medical experts regarding listed impairments. As discussed below, these arguments are without merit.

A. The Treating Physician Rule

Bynum argues that ALJ Strauss failed to properly apply the treating physician rule. Under the 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)). Both Dr. Leon Bernstein, an orthopedic surgeon who examined Bynum once in 1997, and Dr. Malik M. P. Akhtar, a physician who treated Bynum between 1993 and 1999, opined that Bynum was disabled. See AR 181, 183. Bynum contends that these opinions "are entitled to conclusory effect" in "the absence of substantial contradiction." Pl.'s Mem. 13. The Court concludes that the ALJ did not violate the treating physician rule because: (1) a medical source's conclusion that an individual is disabled is not entitled to controlling weight; (2) a conclusion as to disability status made in the Workers' Compensation context is not binding; and (3) the conclusions of Dr. Bernstein and Dr. Akhtar are not supported by clinical findings and other evidence in the record.

As an initial matter, the treating physician rule does not require deference to Dr. Bernstein's and Dr. Akhtar's conclusions that Bynum is disabled because the "ultimate finding of whether a claimant is disabled and cannot work" is an issue reserved to the Commissioner. Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir. 1999). "[S]tatement[s] by a medical source that you are 'disabled' or 'unable to work'" are not "medical opinions . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)-(d)(1), 416.927(d)-(d)(1). As such, the regulations make clear that the Commissioner need "not give any special significance to the source" of those opinions. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(3), 416.927(d)(3); see Snell, 177 F.3d at 133. Thus, Dr. Bernstein's and Dr. Akhtar's assessments of Bynum's "disability status" are not entitled to controlling weight since the treating physician rule does not govern issues reserved to the Commissioner. See Earl-Buck v. Barnhart, 414 F. Supp. 2d 288, 293 (W.D.N.Y. 2006) ("A ...


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