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Tracy v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

January 23, 2017

CHRISTINE TRACY o/b/o MICHAEL P. TRACY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Represented by counsel, Christine Tracy (“plaintiff”) brings this action on behalf of her deceased son, Michael P. Tracy (“M.P.T.”) pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying plaintiff's and M.P.T.'s applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiff's motion is granted and this matter is reversed and remanded solely for the calculation and payment of benefits.

         II. Procedural History

         The record reveals that in October 2009, M.P.T. (d/o/b April 4, 1972) applied for DIB and SSI, [1] alleging disability beginning September 26, 2009. After his applications were denied, M.P.T. requested a hearing, which was held before administrative law judge Robert Harvey (“the ALJ”) on May 18, 2011. On June 1, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied review of that decision and M.P.T. brought an action in this Court on July 20, 2012. By stipulation of both parties, on March 20, 2013 the matter was remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Tracy v. Colvin, No. 1:12-CV-00683, doc. 10 (Skretney, J.). In compliance with this Court's order, on March 8, 2014, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the case with specific instructions to the ALJ which will be more fully discussed below.

         M.P.T. passed away on May 23, 2014. At the second hearing held on July 16, 2014, M.P.T.'s mother testified that at the time of his death, M.P.T. was single and lived with plaintiff. According to plaintiff, “the death certificate indicated the cause of death was related to his cardiac [condition].” T. 570. Plaintiff testified that M.P.T. had been sick for a week, not eating or drinking, yet he refused to go to the hospital despite urging from plaintiff and other family members. On May 23, 2014, plaintiff returned home from a doctor's appointment to find that M.P.T. had passed away. On September 23, 2014, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied review of that decision and this timely action followed.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In his decision following remand, the ALJ found that M.P.T. met the insured status requirements of the Act through September 30, 2009. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, the ALJ determined that M.P.T. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date, September 26, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that M.P.T. suffered from the severe impairments of intermittent explosive disorder and obesity. At step three, the ALJ found that M.P.T. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any listed impairment. Regarding mental functioning, the ALJ found that no restrictions of activities of daily living (“ADLs”), and mild restrictions in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. The ALJ found that M.P.T. had one to two prior episodes of decompensation of extended duration.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that M.P.T. retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) “except [he] would have occasional limitations in ability to deal with stress; [he] retained ability to perform the basic mental demands of unskilled work including understand[ing], remember[ing] and carry[ing] out simple instructions, . . . respond[ing] to co-workers, supervisors and usual work situations, and deal[ing] with changes in routine work settings.” T. 538. At step four, the ALJ found that M.P.T. was capable of performing his past relevant work as a material handler, as he actually performed it. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that M.P.T. was not disabled and did not proceed to step five.

         IV. Discussion

         A district court may set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by “substantial evidence” or if the decision is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000).

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to follow the Appeals Council's order on remand in several respects. An ALJ is required to “take any action that is ordered by the Appeals Council.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.977(b), 416.1477(b). Accordingly, “[an] ALJ's failure to comply with the Appeals Council's order constitutes legal error, and necessitates a remand.” Scott v. Barnhart, 592 F.Supp.2d 360, 371 (W.D.N.Y. 2009). For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to carry out the instructions given by the Appeals Council on initial remand of this case.

         The Appeals Council's March 8, 2014 order noted that the ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of treating psychiatrist Dr. Liong Tjoa, but failed to give an adequate explanation why Dr. Tjoa's opinion was rejected. The record reveals that M.P.T. treated with Dr. Tjoa since 2003 and he was seen every one to two months for medication management. On November 24, 2009, Dr. Tjoa completed a mental RFC questionnaire in which he opined that M.P.T. struggled with boundaries and positive coping in a work setting, with increased symptoms in stressful situations, in addition to acting out behaviors and poor coping. As the Appeals Council recognized:

Dr. Tjoa also noted that [M.P.T.] has a low IQ or reduced intellectual functioning in that he [had] a learning disability; he [had] marked symptoms as a result of stress and anxiety resulting in absence from work due to mental stress; and he [was] unable to hold competitive work but [was] able to manage his funds. It was the opinion of Dr. Tjoa that the earliest of the limitations apply is ...

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