United States District Court, S.D. New York
OPINION & ORDER
PAUL A. ENGELMAYER, District Judge.
Plaintiff Besaida Sanchez ("Sanchez") brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The decision denied Sanchez's application for supplemental security income ("SSI") on the grounds that her impairments, while severe, did not preclude her from finding other employment in the national economy. Both sides have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c).
In a December 5, 2014 Report and Recommendation, the Honorable Henry Pitman, United States Magistrate Judge, recommended that the Court (1) grant Sanchez's motion to the extent that she sought to remand this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g), and (2) deny the Commissioner's motion. Dkt. 31 (the "Report"). For the reasons that follow, the Court adopts the Report in full.
Sanchez, born in 1962, attended high school through the 11th grade. Between January 2007 and July 2010, she was employed as a child-care worker. Her responsibilities included walking her charges to and from school and the park; bathing, dressing, and feeding them; and assisting them with homework. She stopped working in mid-2010 because, she states, of pain in her back, neck, legs, and arms.
On June 27, 2012, at age 50, Sanchez filed an application for SSI, claiming that she had been disabled since July 1, 2010. She alleged that she was disabled due to a number of physical and psychological ailments. These included bipolar disorder, degenerative disc disease, and degenerative joint disease. Sanchez takes several prescribed medications, including pain-killers, anti-anxiety medicine, and attention-aiding medicine. See generally Dkt. 11-3, 11-4.
The Social Security Administration denied her application, finding that she was not disabled. Sanchez timely requested and was granted a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which occurred on February 25, 2013. Sanchez was represented by counsel, and testified, at the hearing.
On March 28, 2013, the ALJ issued his decision, concluding that Sanchez was not disabled within the meaning of the SSA. In making his determination, the ALJ applied the well-established five-step sequential test for determining whether an individual is disabled:
The first step of this process requires the [Commissioner] to determine whether the claimant is presently employed. If the claimant is not employed, the [Commissioner] then determines whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" that limits her capacity to work. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has an impairment that is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. When the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will find the claimant disabled. However, if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the [Commissioner] must determine, under the fourth step, whether the claimant possesses the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the [Commissioner] determines whether the claimant is capable of performing any other work.
Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1996) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920). The claimant has the burden of proof at the first four steps; if the analysis reaches the final step, though, the Commissioner has the burden at the point. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999).
At the first step, the ALJ found that Sanchez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 27, 2012, the date she applied for benefits. At the second step, the ALJ found that she had several severe impairments: bipolar disorder, degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, right knee swelling, and right lateral epicondylitis. At the third step, the ALJ concluded that none of these impairments met, or medically equaled, those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Sanchez had the residual functioning capacity to perform "less than a full range of light work" due to multiple physical limitations and because she was limited, inter alia, to performing "only simple and repetitive tasks." The ALJ further found that Sanchez could not perform "any past relevant work." At the final step, however, the ALJ concluded, in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert, that there were certain jobs in the national economy that Sanchez could perform, such as a packaging line worker, car wash attendant, or cafeteria attendant.
On May 3, 2013, Sanchez requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. On July 11, 2013, the Appeals Council denied her request. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner.
On September 9, 2013, Sanchez filed a Complaint in this Court, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 1. On September 30, 2013, the Court referred the case to Judge Pitman for a Report and Recommendation. Dkt. 3. On March 20, 2014, the Commissioner answered. Dkt. 12. On June 18, 2014, Sanchez moved for judgment on the pleadings and submitted an accompanying brief. Dkt. 21-22. On September 24, 2014, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings and an accompanying brief. Dkt. 28-29.
On December 5, 2014, Judge Pitman issued the Report, recommending that this Court (1) grant Sanchez's motion to the extent of remanding this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g), and (2) deny the Commissioner's motion. Report, 2.
The Report reasoned that remand is warranted because "[t]here is no opinion evidence in the administrative record regarding plaintiff's disability from any of her treating physicians, either medical or psychiatric. There are only sparse treatment notes from these doctors." Id. at 31. The Report noted that the treating physician's opinion is generally accorded controlling weight; it found "particularly problematic" the "absence of any opinion from a treating physician concerning plaintiff's ability to work." Id. at 31-32. The Report also noted that Sanchez's "treatment notes are vague and do not conclusively establish her disability status." Id. at 32. As the Report explained, rather than obtaining and considering treating physicians' opinions, the ALJ had looked at the other evidence in the record, consisting of "the one-time examinations of consulting physicians, X-ray and MRI reports[, ] and plaintiff's description of her symptoms and activities of daily living." Id. at 32-33.
The Report therefore recommended remand to permit the ALJ to "obtain an opinion from plaintiff's treating physician and plaintiff's treating psychiatrist as to plaintiff's specific exertional and nonexertional limitations." Id. at 33. The Report considered and rejected several other arguments Sanchez had made,  see id. at 34-36, but, it concluded, given the recommendation to remand for further development of the record, there was no need to "address whether the ALJ's opinion was supported by substantial evidence." Id. at 36.
The Commissioner timely filed objections on December 22, 2014. See Dkt. 32 ("Comm'r Objs."). Sanchez replied on January 5, 2015. See Dkt. 33 ("Sanchez Rep.").
A. Legal Standards for Review of the Report
In reviewing a Report and Recommendation, a 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. § 636(b)(1). When specific objections are made, "[t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); United States v. Male Juvenile, 121 F.3d 34, 38 (2d Cir. 1997). However, when the objections simply reiterate previous arguments or make only conclusory statements, the Court should review the report for clear error. See Genao v. United States, No. 08 Civ. 9313 (RO), 2011 WL 924202, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 16, 2011); Kirk v. Burge, 646 F.Supp.2d 534, 538 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (collecting cases).
B. The Commissioner's Objections to the Report
In asking that the ALJ's decision be sustained and resisting the Report's recommendation of a remand, the Commissioner argues that (1) it is not per se error for the ALJ to render a decision without obtaining the treating physician's opinion; (2) whether the evidence was inadequate to allow the ALJ to determine whether Sanchez is disabled turns on "a consideration of the available evidence"; and (3) the Report erred by "explicitly declining to consider whether there was substantial evidence in the record to support the  ALJ's  findings." Comm'r Objs., 1-2. The Commissioner argues that Sanchez's medical history before the ALJ was "complete." Id. at 3. And, procedurally, the Commissioner notes, Sanchez was represented by counsel at the hearing and never sought the ALJ's assistance in ...