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Pines v. Colvin

United States District Court, Southern District of New York

March 25, 2015

Marvin Pines, Plaintiff,
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ALISON J. NATHAN, District Judge

Before the Court is Magistrate Judge Frank Maas's Report and Recommendation ("Report") regarding the cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings that Plaintiff Marvin Pines, Jr. ("Pines") and Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") filed in the above-captioned case. Dkt. No. 27. Following de novo review, the Court agrees with Judge Maas's well-reasoned Report and adopts it in its entirety.


District courts may designate magistrate judges to hear and determine certain dispositive motions and to submit proposed findings of fact and a recommendation as to those motions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Any party wishing to object to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation must do so within fourteen days after being served with a copy of the report and recommendation. Id. If a party submits a timely objection to a report and recommendation, the district court reviews de novo those portions to which the party objected. Id.; see also Norman v. Astrue, 912 F.Supp.2d 33, 39 (S.D.N.Y. 2012). Otherwise, "[w]here no 'specific written objection' is made, the district court may adopt those portions 'as long as the factual and legal basis supporting the findings and conclusions set forth ... are not clearly erroneous or contrary to law.'" Norman, 912 F.Supp.2d at 39 (quoting Eisenberg v. New England Motor Freight, Inc., 564 F.Supp.2d 224, 226-27 (S.D.N.Y. 2008)). Because the Commissioner objects to Judge Maas's Report as "legally incorrect, " the Court reviews de novo those portions of the Report to which the Commissioner objects. (Pines did not submit an objection to Judge Maas's Report.)


As noted, the Commissioner timely submitted an objection to Judge Maas's Report, Dkt. No. 28, to which Pines timely responded, Dkt. No. 30. Because the Commissioner only disputes Judge Maas's application of the law to the facts of this case and does not dispute Judge Maas's summary of the relevant facts, the Court adopts Judge Maas's recitation of the relevant facts, Report 6-14. The Court assumes familiarity with this material.


Stated succinctly, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to properly develop the record as required under prevailing Second Circuit case law because he failed to apply the treating physician rule, which requires the ALJ to give good reasons for the weight accorded a treating physician's opinion. On the facts here, no reason-much less a good reason-was given for according no weight to a specific opinion of Pines's treating physician, which, when joined with the vocational expert's opinion, suggested Pines satisfied the statutory definition for disability. The proper remedy for such an error is a remand for further development of the record, as Judge Maas concluded. Although the Court agrees in full with Judge Maas's application of the law to the facts of this case, the Court takes this opportunity to augment his legal analysis with additional support. The Court then briefly explains why the Commissioner's legal citations are inapposite and do not undermine Judge Maas's application of the law.

A. Disability Determination

As Judge Maas explained, the Social Security Act (the "Act") defines the term disability to mean the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner must follow a five-step sequential process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, which the Second Circuit has summarized as follows:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience .... Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam)). As Judge Maas noted, "[t]he claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to the first four steps, " Report 5 (citing DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1180 (2d Cir. 1998)), but "[i]f the claimant sustains [his] burden at each of these steps, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five, " id. (citing Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009)). There is no dispute that Pines satisfied his burden on the first four steps and that the determination at issue in this appeal occurred at step five under which the Commissioner bears the burden of proof.

B. Duty to Develop the Record and the Treating Physician Rule

Although it is true that "whether a claimant is disabled and cannot work" is a matter "reserved for the Commissioner, " Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(1)), the Commissioner is not accorded unfettered discretion in making this determination. Rather, the Act requires that an ALJ develop a complete medical history for a claimant covering the preceding twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(d), 416.912(d). This statutory requirement imposes ...

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