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Murray v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

April 6, 2017

TRAVIS EDWARD MURRAY, 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, Travis Edward Murray (“plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). 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 the matter is reversed and remanded solely for the calculation and payment of benefits.

         II. Procedural History

         The record reveals that in October 2012, plaintiff (d/o/b February 22, 1979) applied for SSI, alleging disability as of May 18, 2010. After his applications were denied, plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held via videoconference before administrative law judge Robert T. Harvey (“the ALJ”) on July 24, 2014. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 14, 2014.

         The Appeals Council denied review of that decision and this timely action followed.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         At step one of the five-step analysis, see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 9, 2012, the application date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cannabis abuse and dependence, depression, and anxiety. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. In assessing the effects of plaintiff's mental impairments on his functioning, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living (“ADLs”) and maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and moderate difficulties in social functioning. The ALJ found that plaintiff had experienced three prior episodes of decompensation, without discussing whether these episodes were of extended duration.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that, considering all of plaintiff's impairments including substance abuse, plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the “broad world” of work, with the following nonexertional limitations: “occasional limitations in the ability to understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions; frequent limitations in the ability to maintain regular attendance; occasional limitations in the ability to complete a normal workday and workweek; occasional limitations in the ability to interact appropriately with the public; and frequent limitations in dealing with stress.” T. 19. The ALJ found that “consider[ing] the entire record, including the medical evidence, the claimant's reported [ADLs], his testimony and the [medical] opinion evidence, . . . when factoring in claimant's substance abuse, he display[ed] disabling symptoms and functional limitations as noted above.” T. 21.

         At step five, the ALJ determined that, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, no jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. However, pursuant to the drug or alcohol abuse (“DAA”) standards, see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(J); 20 C.F.R. § 416.935, the ALJ went on to consider the effect of plaintiff's alcohol and drug abuse on the finding of disability, and concluded that if plaintiff stopped substance abuse, the remaining impairments would be severe, but plaintiff would have the RFC to perform the broad range of work with only the following nonexertional limitations: “occasional limitations in the ability to understand[, ] remember and carry out detailed instructions; occasional limitations in the ability to interact appropriately with the public; and occasional limitations in dealing with stress.” T. 24. Based on this RFC, the ALJ went on to conclude that, if plaintiff stopped substance abuse and considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in the national economy which he could perform. Thus, the ALJ found that plaintiff's substance abuse disorder was a material contributing factor to the disability determination. Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled.

         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 contends that the ALJ erroneously determined that drug addiction or alcoholism (“DAA”) was a material factor contributing to his disability. Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to explain what (if any) evidence in the record supported his conclusion that, in the absence of DAA, plaintiff's limitations stemming from mental impairments would improve to the point that plaintiff was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision was the product of legal error and was unsupported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff points to the July 17, 2014 opinion of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Monir Chaudhry. In that opinion, Dr. Chaudhry noted that he treated plaintiff on a biweekly basis and plaintiff was compliant with outpatient care, which he would need “long-term.” T. 338. Dr. Chaudhry diagnosed plaintiff with major depressive disorder, noting symptoms of anxiety and depression, and opined that he was unable to meet competitive standards in the areas of maintaining regular attendance and being punctual within customary, usually strict tolerances; completing a normal workday or workweek without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms; and dealing with normal work stress. Dr. Chaudhry also opined that plaintiff was seriously limited in sustaining an ordinary ...


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