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Lewis v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

June 23, 2017

DWANE B. LEWIS, Plaintiff,


          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Represented 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.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiff (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 followed.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         At step 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.

         Before 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.

         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).

         A. Dr. Reynolds' Opinion Regarding Mental Health Limitations

         Plaintiff 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.

         Dr. 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.

         The 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.[1] 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. ...

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