United States District Court, E.D. New York
CHARLES E. BINDER, ESQ., New York, NY, for the Plaintiff.
LORETTA E. LYNCH, ESQ., United States Attorney, ARTHUR SWERDLOFF, ESQ., Assistant United States Attorney, Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, NY, for the Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
FREDERIC BLOCK, Senior District Judge.
Cindy Noemi De Leon ("De Leon") seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability benefits under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Both parties move for judgment on the pleadings. After reviewing the parties' submissions, the Court grants De Leon's motion and remands for further proceedings. The Commissioner's motion is denied.
In March 2011, De Leon filed applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. In both applications, she alleged disability, as of August 10, 2010, from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder and anxiety disorder with panic attacks. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her claim. De Leon then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") at which she appeared pro se. In a decision dated April 26, 2012, the ALJ determined that De Leon was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied her request for review. This denial rendered final the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. De Leon timely sought judicial review.
Applying the familiar five-step evaluation process,  the ALJ found that: (1) De Leon had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 10, 2010; (2) her depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder qualified as severe impairments; and (3) her impairments did not meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ then determined that De Leon had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, limited to simple jobs requiring at most occasional contact with others and occasional decision-making. Applying that RFC to the remaining steps, the ALJ found (4) that De Leon was able to perform her past relevant work as a security guard, retail worker and veterinary assistant, and (5) that she was able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
"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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "[S]ubstantial evidence... means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013). De Leon contends the ALJ's RFC determination is flawed because it (1) failed to accord proper weight to the opinion of her treating psychiatrist and (2) is not based on substantial evidence. De Leon also argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility. The Court addresses these arguments in turn.
A. Evaluation of De Leon's Residual Functional Capacity
De Leon contends that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule by dismissing the opinion of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Soliman, in determining her RFC. The Court disagrees. A treating source's opinion regarding a claimant's RFC - as opposed to the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment - is not entitled to controlling weight. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2) ("Although we consider opinions from medical sources on issues such as... your [RFC]... the final responsibility for deciding these issues is reserved to the Commissioner."); see also Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir. 1999) ("A treating physician's statement that a claimant is disabled cannot itself be determinative."). As such, the ALJ did not violate the treating physician rule because he retained final authority over the RFC determination.
However, the Court agrees with De Leon that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence. The "crucial factors" in any RFC determination must be set forth "with sufficient specificity to enable [the Court] to decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence." Douglass v. Astrue, 496 F.Appx. 154, 157 (2d Cir. 2012) (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984)); see also Treadwell v. Schweiker, 698 F.2d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1983) ("the propriety of agency action must be evaluated on the basis of stated reasons."). "Remand may be appropriate... where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where other inadequacies in the ALJ's analysis frustrate meaningful review." Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2013). Here, the ALJ's analysis is unclear and his findings are unsupported by medical evidence in the record.
In his opinion, the ALJ vaguely stated that he "considered all symptoms" and "opinion evidence" in making his RFC determination. AR 26. It is not clear what evidence the ALJ relied on. The ALJ simply stated his RFC finding and broadly cited to multiple exhibits in the record. To the extent the ALJ relied on evidence in the record in making his RFC finding, he provided no connecting analysis. See Glessing v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 13-CV-1254, 2014 WL 1599944, at *9 (E.D.N.Y. April 17, 2014) ("[A]lthough the ALJ certainly made findings as to claimant's limitations, the ALJ provided no analysis explaining upon which evidence those findings were based.") (emphasis in original). "[W]here we are unable to fathom the ALJ's rationale in relation to evidence in the record, especially where credibility determinations and inference drawing is required of the ALJ, we will not hesitate to remand for further findings or a clearer explanation for the decision." Cichocki, 729 F.3d at 177. Because the ALJ failed to explain how the evidence supported his RFC determination, remand is warranted.
Additionally, the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by medical evidence in the record. The record contains the medical reports of two psychiatrists - Dr. Soliman and Dr. Herman, the SSA's consultative examiner. As noted, the ALJ found that De Leon has the "[RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, " limited to "simple jobs" that require "at most occasional contact with others and occasional decision-making." ...