United States District Court, S.D. New York
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
LAURA TAYLOR SWAIN, District Judge.
On August 19, 2013, Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report") recommending that the Court: (1) deny the motion of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") for judgment on the pleadings, (2) grant Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and (3) remand the case for further development of the administrative record. The Commissioner filed a timely objection to the Report on September 12, 2013 (the "Objection"). Plaintiff filed a response to Defendant's objections on September 24, 2013.
The Court has considered thoroughly each of the Commissioner's objections and Plaintiff's responses and, for the following reasons, the Court adopts the Report in its entirety.
Plaintiff applied to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Insurance benefits on July 29, 2009, based on his depression, anxiety, and auditory hallucinations associated with post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Plaintiff was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009 after, he alleges, he was injured when he was knocked to the ground by police, hitting his face on the concrete and a broken beer bottle. SSA denied his claim on initial review on September 18, 2009. A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was conducted on January 27, 2011. The ALJ found on July 1, 2011, that Plaintiff was not disabled.
In denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits, the ALJ relied on the opinions of three physicians - Plaintiff's treating physician and two consultant physicians. Hidalgo began treatment with psychiatrist Dr. Marc Vital-Herne, on April 16, 2009. Over the next year, Dr. Vital-Herne met with Plaintiff approximately every one to two months. Dr. Vital-Herne diagnosed Plaintiff with PTSD and prescribed medication. The doctor also concluded that Plaintiff has a mood disorder and associated issues. "His perception is impaired due to auditory hallucinations and paranoid ideas. These among other symptoms plus side-effects of medications make it very difficult for [Plaintiff] to function in the work setting." (R. 289.) However, because the ALJ determined Dr. Vital-Herne's report was "not fully consistent with treating source records, " (R. 25, ) the ALJ did not afford the treating physician's opinion controlling weight. The ALJ concluded that Dr. Vital-Herne's report was not entitled to controlling weight because it was inconsistent with the record in that 1) the report states that Plaintiff had an inability to function outside of a highly-supportive environment, yet he lives alone; 2) Plaintiff indicated that he does socialize at times, 3) Dr. Vital-Herne's clinical notes refer to improvement over time with medication; and 4) despite a low Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score, Dr. Vitale-Herne's notes do not reflect a recommendation of more frequent visits. (R. 21-22.).
The ALJ relied on the opinions of two consultant physicians. On September 2, 2009, upon the request of the SSA, Dr. Herb Meadow examined Plaintiff. Dr. Meadow diagnosed Plaintiff with PTSD; however, he concluded that Plaintiff "would be able to perform all tasks necessary for vocational functioning." (R. 257.) Also, on September 17, 2009, after Plaintiff applied for benefits, his record was reviewed by Dr. R. Altmansberger, a State Agency psychologist, who concluded that Plaintiff was capable of functioning in a vocational setting and was not significantly limited in his day to day life.
On October 22, 2012, Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision a final decision of the Commissioner. Proceeding pro se, Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review of the final decision on December 10, 2012. The Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) on May 3, 2013. Plaintiff cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings and, in the alternative, requested remand to the Commissioner for further proceedings.
Judge Netburn issued the Report on August 19, 2013, recommending that the Court deny the Commissioner's motion, grant Plaintiff's motion, and remand the case to the ALJ for further development of the administrative record. Judge Netburn concluded that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in failing to apply the treating physician rule properly. Judge Netburn further concluded that this error led to inadequate development of the record because, while he found gaps in the record, the ALJ failed in his affirmative duty to further develop the record. For example, Judge Netburn pointed to the ALJ's finding that Dr. Vital-Herne's treatment notes apparently do not recommend more frequent visits despite Plaintiff's low GAF score. Judge Netburn also held that the ALJ erred because, to the extent he afforded Dr. Meadow's findings relatively greater weight than Dr. Vital-Herne's findings, he failed to state "good reasons" for so doing.
The Commissioner's objections focus principally on Judge Netburn's determination that remand to the Commissioner is warranted because the ALJ failed to develop the record and improperly relied on Dr. Meadow's and Dr. Altmansberger's reports. The Commissioner argues that the regulations permit the ALJ to give greater than limited weight to the report of consultative examiners, and that the record was fully developed. (Docket entry no. 24 at 2-4.) The Commissioner also argues that the ALJ's decision not to give the treating physician's opinion controlling weight was supported by substantial evidence because there were inconsistencies in the treating physician's statements. The Commissioner also argues that the ALJ was not required to seek clarification or additional information concerning those inconsistencies. Finally, the Commissioner argues that the Report errs insofar as it holds that the ALJ may afford "only limited weight [to the opinions of consultative examiners] because of their typically superficial exposure to the plaintiff." (Docket entry no. 24 at 5-6.)
When reviewing a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C.S. § 636(b)(1)(C) (LexisNexis 2012). The district court must make a de novo determination to the extent that a party makes specific objections to a magistrate judge's finding. Id .; see also United States v. Male Juvenile , 121 F.3d 34, 38 (2d Cir. 1997). Courts may set aside a decision of the Commissioner if it is based on legal error, or if it is not supported by substantial evidence. Balsamo v. Chater , 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). On review of a negative determination by the Commissioner on an application for disability benefits, the district court has the "power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner... with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C.S. § 405(g) (LexisNexis 2012). The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. Id . The Treating Physician Rule
The Commissioner objects to Judge Netburn's recommendation that the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Vital-Herne should have been given controlling weight. Specifically, the Commissioner argues (1) that Dr. Vital-Herne's treatment notes contained inconsistencies concerning whether Plaintiff showed improvement and was able to live alone, and (2) that the Report sets forth an incorrect standard when it recommends that it was legal error for the ALJ to give the consultative examiner's report more than limited weight.
The "treating physician rule" is a common law rule that was codified in slightly modified form as a series of regulations set forth by the Commissioner detailing the weight to be accorded a treating physician's opinion. Schisler v. Sullivan , 3 F.3d 563, 567 (2d Cir. 1993). Specifically, the Commissioner's regulations provide that an applicant's treating source's opinion will receive controlling weight when it "is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory ...