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Clark v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 27, 2017

DARRYN CLARK, Plaintiff,


          P. KEVIN CASTEL, District Judge

         Plaintiff Darryn Clark brings this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), to challenge the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. On June 6, 2016 this case was referred to Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn to hear and report. On December 16, 2016, Judge Netburn issued a Report and Recommendation (the “R&R”) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b), Fed. R. Civ. P., recommending that Clark's motion for judgment on the pleadings be granted, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further development of the record and proper analysis of Clark's credibility. The Commissioner filed timely objections to the R&R. For the reasons that follow, this Court adopts Judge Netburn's recommendation to remand for further development of the record, grants in part Clark's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and denies the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings.


         Clark applied for disability benefits on October 3, 2012, alleging an onset date of September 29, 2012. (Administrative Record “AR” 11). The parties agree that his date of last insured is December 31, 2013. (AR 13). Clark asserts that he suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as periodic panic attacks, and claims that his symptoms have rendered him unable to work. Clark is treated primarily by a therapist, Jeanne Coupe, who he has seen weekly since 2009, and a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Kane.

         In October 2012, Dr. Kane and Ms. Coupe co-signed a letter stating that in their opinion, Clark was unable to work due to his major depression and that his psychiatric condition had responded poorly to multiple medication regimens. (AR 167). Dr. Kane restated these opinions in a letter dated May 1, 2014. (AR 297). Also on May 1, 2014, Ms. Coupe wrote that Clark's condition had not meaningfully improved in the time that she had been treating him. (AR 298). She explained that he struggled with “debilitating bouts of depression that greatly interfere with his day-to-day functioning” and had been “unable to maintain work . . . as a result of his depressive symptoms.” (AR 298). Both Dr. Kane and Ms. Coupe opined that Clark was not able to work as a result of his depression and panic attacks. (AR 297-98).

         Clark was also examined by Dr. Angela Fairweather, a consultative psychologist in January 2013. (AR 258). She concluded that Clark's psychiatric conditions caused moderate to significant impairment in his ability to function on a daily basis. (AR 260). She provided a guarded prognosis “given [Clark's] poor responsiveness to treatment.” (AR 261).

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Clark's application for disability benefits on February 25, 2013 and Clark requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on March 15, 2013. (R&R 2; AR 57, 61). A hearing was held on April 14, 2014 before ALJ Mark Solomon where Clark appeared with his attorney. (R&R 2, AR 24). In his decision, the ALJ considered testimony from Clark as well as medical records from Dr. Kane, Ms. Coupe, and several other medical professionals who treated Clark during the relevant time period. (AR 15-18). The ALJ issued his decision on June 24, 2014 which denied Clark's application for disability benefits and found that Clark was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (AR 20). Clark appealed the ALJ's decision but the Appeals Council denied his request for review on September 17, 2015 at which point the ALJ's decision was rendered final. (R&R 2).

         In reviewing the ALJ's decision, Magistrate Judge Netburn concluded that the ALJ had ignored substantial evidence that supported the opinions of Clark's treating physicians, failed to adequately develop the record, and inappropriately assessed Clark's credibility. (R&R 1, 20). The Commissioner filed timely objections to each of these conclusions. (Dkt. 19).


         A. Standard of Review.

         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)(C). In the event that a party files objections to the magistrate judge's recommendations, district courts conduct a de novo review of those matters to which a party filed an objection. Id. § 636(b)(1)(B), (C).

         When reviewing a Social Security claim, this Court does not determine de novo whether the plaintiff is disabled and therefore entitled to disability benefits. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Rather, the reviewing court determines only “whether the Commissioner's conclusions ‘are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or are based on an erroneous legal standard.'” Id. (quoting Beauvoir v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (explaining that a court will only overturn the ALJ's decision if it is “based upon legal error” or “not supported by substantial evidence”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It 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) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). However, “[i]n conducting [its] review . . . [the Court] will not substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if [it] ‘might justifiably have reached a different result upon de novo review.'” Campbell v. Astrue, 465 F. App'x 4, 5 (2d Cir. 2012) (summary order) (quoting Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984)). “Even where the administrative record may also adequately support contrary findings on particular issues, the ALJ's factual findings ‘must be given conclusive effect' so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.” Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982)).

         The Social Security Act defines a “disability” as an “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 entitled to disability benefits, the ALJ must follow a ...

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