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Amoroso v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 25, 2017

VINCENT AMOROSO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          FOR THE PLAINTIFF CHRISTOPHER J. BOWES

          FOR THE DEFENDANT ROBERT L. CAPERS UNITED STATES ATTORNEY EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

          DARA A. OLDS ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          FREDERIC BLOCK, Senior United States District Judge

         Vincent Amoroso (“Amoroso, ” “plaintiff, ” or “claimant”) seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability benefits under the Social Security Act (“SSA”). Both parties move for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.

         I.

         A resident of Staten Island, New York, Amoroso is a high school graduate in his mid-forties. From 1992 to 2007, his earnings were modest as he worked as a telephone operator and counter attendant. He stopped engaging in substantial gainful activity on August 2, 2009. Beginning on that date, and through at least September 30, 2013, Amoroso allegedly suffered from osteoarthritis in his right foot and ankle due to a congenital deformity, hypertension, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and adjustment disorder with anxious and depressed mood. He filed an application for disability benefits on December 15, 2011. Amoroso's claim was initially denied on April 13, 2012. At Amoroso's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 24, 2013.

         On November 22, 2013, the ALJ held that Amoroso was not disabled within the meaning of the SSA. Applying the SSA's five-step sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ determined that (1) Amoroso had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 2, 2009, the alleged onset date, and (2) his osteoarthritis, hypertension, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and adjustment disorder constituted severe impairments. Nonetheless, the ALJ concluded that Amoroso did not have a specific impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the SSA's requisite level of severity, as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, so as to trigger his automatic classification as disabled.

         The ALJ then determined that Amoroso had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), with certain exceptions.[2]In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied on objective medical evidence, including “medical evidence of record, ” AR 16, and nearly a dozen different doctor reports. See Id. at 13-16, 258-60, 344-52. The ALJ thereupon applied this RFC to the remaining step and determined that Amoroso, though unable to perform any past relevant work, could perform other jobs identified in Medical Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, based partly on the testimony of a vocational expert who had been duly informed of plaintiff's physical and mental limitations as substantially evidenced by the overall record. In particular, in light of Amoroso's age, education, past relevant work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff possessed skills transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as charge account clerk or surveillance system monitor.

         The Appeals Council denied Amoroso's request for review on January 21, 2015, and the ALJ's decision thereby became the Commissioner's final one. Amoroso has sought timely review, arguing that, because the ALJ improperly discounted his doctors' and his own testimony regarding the nature of his impairments, thereby computing an improper RFC, and mistakenly relied on a vocational expert's opinion, the Commissioner's decision that he was not disabled was in error. The Court considers each reason.

         II.

         “In reviewing a 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). Substantial 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), cited in, e.g., Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013). If contradictions appear in the record and an ALJ fails to reasonably explain why he or she opted for one interpretation over another, the Commissioner's findings cannot stand. See, e.g., Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 81 (2d Cir. 1998) (“‘[T]he ALJ cannot arbitrarily substitute his [or her] own judgment for competent medical opinion . . . .'”); cf. Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 420 (2d Cir. 2013) (“To the extent that record is unclear, the Commissioner has an affirmative duty to ‘fill any clear gaps in the administrative record' before rejecting a treating physician's diagnosis.”). “[T]he reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.” Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983); see also Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (citing Mongeur, 722 F.2d at 1038).

         A. ALJ's RFC Computation: Treatment of Opinions Submitted by Plaintiff's Doctors

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ failed to correctly apply the treating physician rule when he did not give controlling weight to the opinions submitted by his treating and consultative orthopedists pointing to “a remarkably reduced range of standing and walking that cannot support a finding that . . . Amoroso could perform the jobs cited by the vocational expert.” Pl.'s MSJ at 18. The treating physician rule dictates that “the opinion of a claimant's treating physician as to the nature and severity of the impairment is given ‘controlling weight' so long as it ‘is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.'” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). For purposes of this rule, “medical opinions” include “statements from physicians and psychologists and other acceptable medical sources, ” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2), and can take a variety of forms, cf. Philpot v. Colvin, No. 12-CV-291 (MAD/VEB), 2014 WL 1312147, at *19 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2014) (noting that the relevant treating physician's opinion had been embodied in a checklist); Gray v. Astrue, No. 09-CV-00584, 2011 WL 2516496, at *5 (W.D.N.Y. June 23, 2011) (same); Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008) (same). If the ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, he or she must provide “‘good reasons' for the ...


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