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Medick v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 6, 2017


          Law Offices of Steven R. Dolson Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Social Security Administration Office of Regional General Counsel, Attorneys for Defendant.




         Plaintiff Goldie Medick brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “defendant”) denying her applications for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits. Dkt. No. 1 (“Compl.”).[1] Plaintiff moves for a finding of disability, and the Commissioner cross moves for a judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. Nos. 9, 11. For the following reasons, the determination of the Commissioner is remanded.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was born on January 20, 1980. T at 29. Plaintiff graduated from high school and completed a vocational training program for nursing. Id. Plaintiff obtained her nursing license, and worked as a nurse (LPN) until 2007. Id. Plaintiff once worked as a hotel front desk clerk. Id. at 43. Plaintiff is 5'7" tall, and weights approximately 370 pounds. Id. at 30, 320. Plaintiff has a driver's license and is able to drive. Id. Plaintiff last worked in 2007 as an LPN. Id. at 30. Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits, and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on March 19, 2013. Id. at 168-69; 187-197.[2] Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on January 13, 2011. Id. at 187. These applications were denied on July 3, 2013. Id. at 51-59; 72-76. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing, and a hearing was held on August 19, 2014. Id. at 24-50, 92-93. On October 21, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Joseph J. Brinkley determined that plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 10-20. Plaintiff's timely request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, making the ALJ's findings the final determination of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-4.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a district court may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla, " meaning that in the record one can find "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citations omitted)). The substantial evidence standard is "a very deferential standard of review . . . . [This] means once an ALJ finds facts, we can reject [them] only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise." Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). Where there is reasonable doubt as to whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards, the decision should not be affirmed even though the ultimate conclusion reached is arguably supported by substantial evidence. Martone v. Apfel, 70 F.Supp.2d 145, 148 (N.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)). However, if the correct legal standards were applied and the ALJ's finding is supported by substantial evidence, such finding must be sustained, "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (citation omitted).

         B. Determination of Disability

         "Every individual who is under a disability shall be entitled to a disability . . . benefit . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). Disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). A medically-determinable impairment is an affliction that is so severe that it renders an individual unable to continue with his or her previous work or any other employment that may be available to him or her based upon age, education, and work experience. Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Such an impairment must be supported by "medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." Id. § 423(d)(3). Additionally, the severity of the impairment is "based [upon] objective medical facts, diagnoses or medical opinions inferable from [the] facts, subjective complaints of pain or disability, and educational background, age, and work experience." Ventura v. Barnhart, No. 04-CV-9018 (NRB), 2006 WL 399458, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2006) (citing Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1037 (2d Cir. 1983)).

         The Second Circuit employs a five-step analysis, based on 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, to determine whether an individual is entitled to disability benefits:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.
If he [or she] is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a ‘severe impairment' which significantly limits his [or her] 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 [or her] disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a ‘listed' impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.
Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he [or she] has the residual functional capacity to perform his [or her] past work.
Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his [or her] past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry, 675 F.2d at 467 (spacing added). The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proof to establish each of the first four steps. DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1179-80 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467). If the inquiry progresses to the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that the plaintiff is still able to engage in gainful employment somewhere. Id. at 1180 (citing Berry, 675 F.2d at 467).

         "In addition, an ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Barringer v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 358 F.Supp.2d 67, 72 (N.D.N.Y. 2005) (citing Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984)). However, a court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner where the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. See Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). The Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

         C. ALJ Decision

         Applying the five-step disability sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 13, 2011, the alleged onset date, through October 21, 2014, the date of the decision.[3] T at 12. The ALJ found at step two that plaintiff had the severe impairments of obesity, systemic lupus erythematosus (“SLE”), [4] fibromyalgia, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, neuropathy secondary to diabetes, supraventricular tachycardia, [5] headache pain, patellefemoral/lateral compartment chondrosis, [6] and degenerative signal antero-or lateral meniscus. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 13. The ALJ then concluded that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:

perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that the claimant: can occasionally use the upper extremities to engage in overhead reaching, pulling, pushing, and lifting; can frequently use the upper extremities to handle, grasp, finger, and feel bilaterally. She can also occasionally use the lower extremities to repetitively operate foot/leg controls. She can occasionally kneel, stoop, bend, and climb stairs/ramps, but must never clumb ladders/ropes/scaffolds or crawl. She must also avoid concentrated exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures, wetness, humidity, vibrations, and work hazards such as unprotected height and dangerous machinery. Further, she is limited to an office, noise level environment. In addition, she is limited to unskilled tasks.

Id. at 13. At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 17.[7] Considering plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, together with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ further concluded that there were jobs existing in the national economy that plaintiff was able to perform. Id. at 19. The ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), and concluded that, pursuant to SSR 00-4p, the VE's testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). Id. Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff could perform the jobs of office helper, order clerk, or envelope addresser, and that these jobs exist in significant numbers within the national economy. Id. Therefore, the ALJ determined that plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined under the Social Security Act, from January 13, 2011, the alleged onset date, to the date of the decision. Id.

         D. Arguments

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision is not based on substantial evidence due to two reversible errors: (1) the ALJ improperly accounted for the position of a single decision maker, and (2) the ALJ failed to follow the treating physician rule with regard to the opinions of Dr. Satterly and Dr. Neupane. See generally Dkt. No. 9. Defendant argues that the ALJ properly applied the treating physician rule. Dkt. No. 11. Further, defendant contends that the ALJ's “accounting for” the single decision maker's opinion does not require remand. For the reasons that follow, the matter is remanded to the Commissioner.

         1. Treating Physician Rule

         Although a treating physician's opinion is not binding on the Commissioner, the opinion must be given controlling weight when it is well supported by medical findings and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 588 (2d Cir. 2002); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d). W here the treating physician's opinion is contradicted by other substantial evidence, the ALJ is not required to give the opinion controlling weight. Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 32 (2d Cir. 2004). The ALJ must, however, properly analyze the reasons that the report is rejected. Id. An ALJ may not arbitrarily substitute his or her own judgment for competent medical opinion. Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F .3d 72, 79 (2d Cir. 1999).

         a. Dr. Clyde Satterly

         In his RFC assessment, Dr. Satterly provided that plaintiff's diagnoses included Lupus, fibromyalgia, diabetes, hypertension, [8] and obesity. T at 314. He provided that plaintiff's prognosis was “permanent.” Id. Her symptoms were reported as pain, swelling of the joints, fatigue, numbness, headaches, imbalance, frequent falls, forgetfulness, and lack of concentration. Id. Dr. Satterly indicated that plaintiff experienced “pain in all joints but especially hands, feet[;] muscle tenderness, back shoulder[, ] legs due to fibromyalgia [;] activity precipitates pain, pain can be significant.” Id. Dr. Satterly identified the clinical and objective finds he used in making plaintiff's diagnosis: confirmation of Dr. Neupane's diagnosis, “physical findings, ” and blood work. Id. at 314. Dr. Satterly indicated that certain of plaintiff's prescriptions “can cause” fatigue and nausea. Id. Dr. Satterly provided that plaintiff was not a malingerer and that “emotional factors” did not contribute to plaintiff's symptoms and limitations. Id. at 315. He further provided that her impairments were reasonably consistent with her symptoms and functional limitations. Id. Dr. Satterly indicated that her pain and other symptoms were “frequently” severe enough to interfere with “attention and concentration needed to perform even simple work tasks.” Id. In answering a question that asked “[t]o what degree can your patient tolerate work stress, ” Dr. Satterly indicated that plaintiff was “[c]apable of low stress jobs.” Id.

         Dr. Satterly concluded that plaintiff could walk one block without rest or severe pain, sit for up to fifteen minutes at one time, stand for up to fifteen minutes at one time, and must alternate between “sitting/standing/lying down all day: cannot maintain position for [greater than] 15 min.” T at 315-16. Dr. Satterly provided that plaintiff needed to include periods of walking around during a work day, and would need to walk every fifteen to twenty minutes, for two to three minutes. Id. at 316. Further, plaintiff needed a job that permitted shifting positions at will from sitting, standing, or walking, and would need unscheduled breaks during an eight-hour work day. Id. He provided that plaintiff could not perform any prolonged period of sitting. Id. Dr. Satterly indicated that plaintiff did not need to use a cane or assistive device. Id. He opined that plaintiff could occasionally lift less than ten pounds, but never lift ten pounds or more. Id. He provided that plaintiff could never twist, stoop, crouch/squat, or climb ladders or stairs. Id. at 317. Dr. Satterly also provided that plaintiff's “hands are significantly affected due to Lupus, ” and caused her limitations with “fastening buttons[;] tying shoes[;] computer, phone, etc. are now difficult[;] used to play guitar but no longer can (sold all her elec. guitar gear) [; and] even grooming (hair) is difficult[].” Id. Dr. Satterly indicated that plaintiff's impairments were not likely to produce good days and bad days. Id. Finally, he provided that plaintiff should avoid temperature extremes and humidity, as well as sunlight. Id.

         The ALJ accorded Dr. Satterly's opinion “limited weight.” T at 16. The ALJ explained that he assigned this lesser level of weight because plaintiff “sought only general treatment with him, throughout which time he hardly made any mention of the alleged lupus and fibromyalgia.” Id. Further, the ALJ found notable that Dr. Satterly, in addressing the RFC admitted that plaintiff

“sees Dr. Nu epene] for these conditions [(lupus and fibromyalgia)] but he would not fill out her form even though he is the best one to answer these questions. I will try my best to answer these questions as this patient has [nowhere] else to go to get this done.”

Id. The ALJ pointed out that, on the same day Dr. Satterly completed the RFC, “he noted that [plaintiff] looked well and had no abnormalities, upon examination.” Id. Observing that plaintiff testified that she could lift and carry a gallon of milk, and has difficulty dialing a telephone and using a keyboard or mouse, the ALJ concluded that “this is somewhat inconsistent with the functional assessment in which the claimant reported that she can walk maybe five minutes and has to stop, sit, or lean on something to rest and she can stand in one spot [for] ten minutes.” Id. The ALJ noted that plaintiff “also reported that she could still write [for] five to ten minutes with the right hand and even drove for fifty ...

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