United States District Court, W.D. New York
DWANE B. LEWIS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
MICHAEL A. TELESCA, United States District Judge
by counsel, Dwane B. Lewis (“plaintiff”) brings
this action pursuant to Title II 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 disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”). 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 to
the extent that this case is remanded to the Commissioner for
further administrative proceedings consistent with this
Decision and Order.
(d/o/b July 8, 1960), a veteran, applied for DIB in October
2011, alleging disability beginning February 1, 2008. After
his application was denied, plaintiff requested a hearing,
which was held before administrative law judge Grenville
Harrop, Jr. (“the ALJ”) on March 5, 2013. The ALJ
issued an unfavorable decision on March 27, 2013. The Appeals
Council denied review of that decision and this timely action
The ALJ's Decision
one of the five-step sequential evaluation, see 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity during the time period from
his alleged onset date of February 1, 2008 through his date
last insured of June 30, 2012. At step two, the ALJ found
that plaintiff suffered from history of aortic dissection,
type B, and post-traumatic stress disorder
(“PTSD”), both of which he considered severe. At
step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments
did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.
proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff
retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1567(b), except that he could frequently but not
continuously interact with coworkers and supervisors, and
should not interact with large groups of people or drive as a
function of his job duties. At step four, the ALJ found that
plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. At step
five, the ALJ found that considering plaintiff's age,
education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in the
national economy which plaintiff could perform. Accordingly,
the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled.
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).
Dr. Reynolds' Opinion Regarding Mental Health
contends that the ALJ erroneously failed to consider a
January 4, 2013 PTSD disability benefits questionnaire
completed by Dr. William Reynolds, a VA psychologist. In this
questionnaire, Dr. Reynolds opined that plaintiff suffered
from various work-related limitations stemming from his
mental health diagnoses of PTSD and depressive disorder. Dr.
Reynolds' opinion indicates that he reviewed
plaintiff's medical records, including records of
treatment with VA psychologist Dr. Stephen Skiffington, who
had terminated plaintiff's treatment, due to missed
appointments, in October 2012. Plaintiff reported that he saw
Dr. Mohammed Saeed “sporadically for medication therapy
and last saw him on November 21, 2012.” T. 924.
Reynolds opined that plaintiff's mental diagnoses caused
“[o]ccupational and social impairment with deficiencies
in most areas, such as work, school, family relations,
judgment, [and] thinking and/or mood.” T. 923. Dr.
Reynolds stated that plaintiff's PTSD caused a
“serious impairment in social and occupational
functioning”; depression caused “moderate to
serious difficulty in social and occupational
functioning”; and alcohol abuse (in remission) caused
“some difficulty in social and occupational
functioning.” Id. Plaintiff's “PTSD
symptoms . . . cause[d] clinically significant distress or
impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas
of functioning.” T. 925. According to Dr. Reynolds,
plaintiff's PTSD resulted in a number of difficulties,
including “[d]ifficulty in establishing and maintaining
effective work and social relationships, ” and
“[d]ifficulty in adapting to stressful circumstances,
including work or a worklike setting.” T. 927.
regulations provide that the SSA “will evaluate every
medical opinion [it] receive[s], ” “[r]egardless
of its source.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). In this
case, the ALJ failed to even discuss Dr. Reynolds'
opinion; moreover, the ALJ failed to weigh other
psychological opinion evidence in the record, including
opinions from consulting examining psychologists Drs. Sandra
Jensen and Carol Descutner. The ALJ erred in failing to weigh
these opinions and, as plaintiff argues, in failing to even
discuss Dr. Reynolds' opinion. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(e)(2)(ii) (“Unless a treating source's
opinion is given controlling weight, the administrative law
judge must explain in the decision the weight given
to the opinions of a State agency medical or psychological
consultant or other program physician, psychologist, or other
medical specialist, as the administrative law judge must do
for any opinions from treating sources, nontreating
sources, and other nonexamining sources who do not work for
us.”) (emphasis added). Moreover, this error was not
harmless, because the limitations opined in Dr. Reynolds'
opinion were quite restrictive and could have resulted in a
finding of disability - or at the very least a more
restrictive RFC finding - if given weight by the ALJ. Cf.