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Corporan v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. New York

January 23, 2015

ELIZABETH CORPORAN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Elizabeth Corporan filed this action under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying her application for disability benefits.

On March 27, 2014, Judge Netburn issued a Report and Recommendation addressing both parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. No. 44 ("the Report").) Judge Netburn concluded that the administrative law judge (the "ALJ") failed to adequately develop the record, leaving her unable to determine whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Judge Netburn recommended that that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further development of the record.

On May 21, 2014, the Commissioner filed objections to the Report. (Dkt. No. 47 ("Def. Obj.").) The Commissioner argues that the decision to deny Corporan benefits is supported by substantial evidence and therefore should be affirmed. Corporan has filed no objections to the Report.

For the reasons that follow, the Court adopts the Report and remands to the Commissioner.

I. Standard of Review

The district court is entitled to "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Portions of the magistrate judge's findings or recommendations to which objection is made, if any, are reviewed de novo by the district court. Id. However, only objections "clearly aimed at particular findings" in a magistrate judge's report earn de novo review. Molefe v. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, 602 F.Supp.2d 485, 487 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Where a party does not object, or files objections of a merely "general" or "conclusory" nature, courts review reports for clear error. Legall v. Colvin, No. 13-CV-1426, 2014 WL 4494753, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2014).

Both Corporan and the Commissioner move for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Dkt. Nos. 19 & 35.) A Rule 12(c) motion will be granted "if, from the pleadings, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Wells Fargo Bank, Nat'l Ass'n v. Davidson Kempner Capital Mgmt. LLC, ___ F.Supp.2d ___, 2014 WL 1883547, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. May 12, 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The scope of review of a Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited. The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). "[Substantial evidence] is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Zabala v. Astrue, 595 F.3d 402, 408 (2d Cir. 2010) (alteration in original) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). A decision supported by substantial evidence will be upheld even where there is substantial evidence in support of the plaintiff's position, or where the court would have reached a decision different than the Commissioner's. Alves v. Colvin, No. 13-CV-3898, 2014 WL 4827886, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2014).

However, a threshold question for the reviewing court is whether "the claimant has had a full hearing under the... regulations and in accordance with the beneficent purposes of the [Social Security] Act." Moran v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 108, 112 (2d Cir. 2009) (alteration in original). Remand is appropriate if the reviewing court concludes that the claimant did not receive a full and fair hearing. Selmo v. Barnhart, No. 01-CV-7374, 2002 WL 31445020, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 31, 2002).

II. Discussion

Judge Netburn's Report describes the factual and procedural background of this case in great detail, and the Court need not recount it here.

The Commissioner identifies the following three alleged errors in the Report: (1) that the Report unreasonably imposed a "doubly heightened duty" on the ALJ to develop the record (Def. Obj., at 4-8); (2) that the Report erroneously treated Dr. Jorge Farrat's medical opinion as that of a treating physician, even though he examined Corporan only once and did not have an ongoing treatment relationship with her (Id. at 9-10); and (3) that the Report incorrectly concluded that, in failing to obtain certain medical records, the ALJ did not meet his duty to develop the record (Id. at 10-17).

A. The ALJ's Duty to Develop the Record

The Report concluded that, in the circumstances of this case, the ALJ's duty to develop the record was "doubly heightened." Two factors gave rise to this enhanced duty: Corporan's claim of a mental (rather than physical) impairment, and her pro se status at the ALJ hearing.[1] (Report, at 26-28.) The Report reasoned that a claim based on a mental disability requires "a robust examination that is sensitive to the dynamism of mental illnesses and the coping mechanisms that claimants develop to manage them." (Id. at 27.)

The Commissioner objects on this point. In the Commissioner's view, the proposition that an ALJ's duty to develop the record varies based on the nature of a claimant's alleged impairment is ...


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