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Preston v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. New York

June 5, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.


          WILLIAM G. YOUNG, D.J. [2]


         Melissa Preston ("Preston") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1. She challenges the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") to deny Preston's application for Social Security disability benefits, arguing that the decision has legal error and does not have substantial support in the record. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 13-14. The Commissioner argues that her decision has substantial support and ought be affirmed. Def.'s Br. Pursuant Gen. Order. No. 18. ("Def.'s Mem.") 1, ECF No. 11. Upon review of the record, this Court concludes that the hearing officer did not properly explain the weight accorded to a treating physician's opinion. Accordingly, this Court remands to the hearing officer for reevaluation of the weight to accord that medical evidence.

         A. Procedural Background

         On March 26, 2012, Preston applied for disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as supplemental security income. Admin. R. 22, ECF No. 7-2.[3] Preston's applications were denied and she timely requested a hearing. Id. at 18-19. After a video hearing on November 11, 2013, the hearing officer[4] denied Preston's application. Id. at 22, 31.

         Preston subsequently appealed to the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration; her appeal was denied. Id. at 1. Preston then sought judicial review of the hearing officer's decision in this Court, Compl. ¶ 1, eventually filing a motion for judgment on the pleadings, Mot. J. Pleadings, ECF No. 9. Both parties briefed the issues. Mem. Law Supp. PL's Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl's Mem."), ECF No. 10; Def.'s Mem. On January 31, 2017, this Court heard oral arguments[5] from both parties and took the matter under advisement. Jan. 31, 2017 Minute Entry.

         B. Factual Background

         Preston is an unemployed, 32-year-old woman. Admin. R. 50, 194. She has a 10th grade education and work experience as a deli assistant and home health aide. Id. at 47, 50. She is unmarried and lives with her two young children. Id. at 45, 50.

         Preston reports that back pain requires her to be sedentary most of the day. Id. at 47, 275. She independently performs activities such as shopping, driving, going to church, light cooking, and laundry. Id. at 55-56, 275-79. She also uses a computer to update her Facebook page. Id. at 53. Preston receives some assistance from her mother, sister, and boyfriend, especially in helping care for the children. Id. at 54-5.

         1. Back Pain and Scoliosis

         As a child, Preston suffered from scoliosis and had metal rods permanently installed in her spine. Id. at 48-49, 370. She continues to suffer from scoliosis, as revealed by MRIs of her lower spine. See, e.g., id. at 378. Some MRI reports, however, reveal only "mild" spinal disfigurement. See, e.g., id. at 378, 381, 409.

         Preston's treating physician, Dr. George Jobson ("Dr. Jobson"), treated Preston over a number of years. On July 17, 2008, Preston first consulted Dr. Jobson regarding severe, chronic back pain. Id. at 370. This pain continued through 2009 and prevented Preston from working. Id. at 371. From 2010 to 2012, Preston continued to see Dr. Jobson for pain management. Id. Dr. Jobson referred Preston to various specialists for further diagnosis and treatment. See, e.g., id. at 407, 410, 428, 564.

         On January 23, 2012, Dr. Jobson wrote a letter opining that Preston [wa]s "permanently disabled" and "[could ]not work in any capacity." Id. at 426. That same day, Dr. Jobson completed a New York state disability assessment form on Preston's behalf. Id. at 424-25. He wrote that Preston could not lift, pull, or push any object weighing over 20 pounds and could not stand for over 20 minutes. Id. at 425.

         On January 31, 2012, Dr. Jobson opined that Preston suffered from "Scoliosis, " "Keratoconus, " "compressed nerves in the back/spine, " and "Fibromyalgia." Id. at 427. Consequently, he stated Preston "w[ould] be unable to work for at least one year. She ha[d] been unable to work since 7/1/08." Id.

         Dr. Jobson completed another disability report for Preston on April 20, 2012. Id. at 441-46. In this report, Dr. Jobson opined that Preston had the capacity to sit for up to four hours and to stand for up to one hour, per eight hour day. Id. at 443. He also stated that Preston occasionally could lift or carry up to ten pounds. Id. at 444.

         Dr. Jobson wrote another report on May 29, 2012. Id. at 501-08. He opined that Preston had no limitation in sitting and could stand for up to two hours per day. Id. at 505. Dr. Jobson also stated that ...

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