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Scognamiglio v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 9, 2020

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Pamela K. Chen United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Lisa Scognamiglio brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the decision made by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) to deny her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkts. 10, 14.) Plaintiff seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision and an award of benefits or, alternatively, remand for further administrative proceedings. The Commissioner asks the Court to affirm the denial of Plaintiff's claim. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and denies the Commissioner's motion. This case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum & Order.


         I. Procedural History

         On October 22, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability beginning on September 15, 2014. (Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”), [2] Dkt. 8, at 132.) On January 14, 2015, Plaintiff's application was initially denied. (Id. at 142-53.) Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 154-55.) On May 17, 2017, Plaintiff appeared with counsel before ALJ David Suna. (Id. at 89-131.) In a decision dated January 12, 2018, ALJ Suna determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act (“the Act”) and was not eligible for the benefits for which she had applied. (Id. at 8-23.) On October 18, 2018, the ALJ's decision became final when the Appeals Council of the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision. (Id. at 1-4.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely[3] commenced this action. (See Complaint (“Compl.”), Dkt. 1.)

         II. The ALJ Decision

         In evaluating disability claims, the ALJ must adhere to a five-step inquiry. The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps of the inquiry; the Commissioner bears the burden in the final step. Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012). First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the answer is yes, the claimant is not disabled. If the answer is no, the ALJ proceeds to the second step to determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is severe when it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the impairment is not severe, then the claimant is not disabled. In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2014, and that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines, (2) osteoarthritis of the right shoulder, (3) fibromyalgia, and (4) major depressive disorder with anxiety. (Tr. at 14.) Having determined that Plaintiff satisfied her burden at the first two steps, the ALJ progressed to the third step and determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Act's regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). (Id. at 14-16.) Moving to the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff maintained residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4] to perform

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except: the claimant can occasionally push/pull bilaterally; reach overhead occasionally with the upper right extremity; and reach in all other directions frequently with the upper right extremity. The claimant can frequently handle, finger, and feel with the upper right extremity/hand. She is right hand dominant. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently balance and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She should have no exposure to unprotected heights and only occasional exposure to moving mechanical parts and operating a motor vehicle. She cannot have exposure to vibration. She must avoid frequent exposure to extreme cold, humidity, and wetness. She is limited to more than simple but less than complex tasks, but not at a production rate pace (e.g., assembly line work). She can frequently interact with supervisors and co-workers; occasionally interact with the public. She can tolerate occasional changes in the work setting. She needs to alternate between sitting and standing every 20-30 minutes with a 5-10 minute change of position, while remaining on task. In addition to normal breaks, she will be off-task 5% of the time in an 8-hour workday.

(Id. at 16.) Relying on the RFC findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work as an elementary school teacher. (Id. at 21.) The ALJ then proceeded to step five to determine whether Plaintiff-given her RFC, age, education, and work experience- had the capacity to perform other substantial gainful work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of working in the following unskilled light-level occupations: stock checker, produce weigher, and collator operator, as well as the sedentary-level occupations: polisher, waxer, and document preparer. (Tr. at 22.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)


         Unsuccessful claimants for disability benefits under the Act may bring an action in federal district court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of their benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, the Court's role is “limited to determining whether the [SSA's] conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera, 697 F.3d at 151 (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.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). In determining whether the Commissioner's findings were based upon substantial evidence, “the reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.” Id. Ultimately, the Court “defer[s] to the Commissioner's resolution of conflicting evidence.” Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012). If there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's findings as to any fact, those findings are conclusive and must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 175-76 (2d Cir. 2013).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence and does not properly apply the relevant legal standards. (Memorandum of Law in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (“Pl.'s Mot.”), Dkt. 10-1, at 9.) Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ erred in two ways. First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ disregarded the opinion of one vocational expert (“VE”) in favor of another whose opinion would be “supportive of [the ALJ's] pre-determined unfavorable decision.” (Id. at 11.) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give controlling weight to Plaintiff's treating physicians, in violation of the treating physician rule, and instead gave undue weight to the opinions of medical sources who did not examine Plaintiff, evidence of Plaintiff's conservative treatment, and Plaintiff's self-reported abilities to perform some household activities. (Id. at 12-15.)

         The Court addresses only Plaintiff's second set of arguments, [5] finding them sufficient, in themselves, to warrant remand. The Court finds that, here, the ALJ's determination of Plaintiff's RFC was deficient because the ALJ: (1) failed to give proper deference to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians regarding her physical limitations, instead giving undue weight to the opinions of a consultative examiner and a non-examining medical expert; (2) inaccurately characterized Plaintiff's medical treatment as “conservative”; (3) applied an incorrect legal standard in discounting Plaintiff's subjective complaints of chronic pain; and (4) overstated the extent to which Plaintiff's self-reported limitations in her daily activities supported the RFC determination.

         I. The Treating Physician Rule

         “With respect to the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments, the SSA recognizes a treating physician rule[6] of deference to the views of the physician who has engaged in the primary treatment of the claimant.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citations omitted). Under the treating physician rule, a treating source's opinion is given “controlling weight” so long as it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and not “inconsistent with the other substantial evidence” in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). If the opinion of the treating physician is not given controlling weight, the ALJ must apply a number of factors in order to determine the opinion's proper weight. See Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 134 (2d Cir. 2000). These factors include: (i) the frequency of examination as well as the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship; (ii) the evidence in support of the treating source's opinion; (iii) the extent to which the opinion is consistent with the record as a whole; (iv) whether the treating source is a specialist; and (v) other relevant factors. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(6), 416.927(c)(1)-(6).

         A. The ALJ Did Not Properly Weigh the Treating Physicians' Opinions

         Here, the ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Idan Sharon, M.D., and Uel Alexis, M.D. (Tr. at 20.) The ALJ came to this conclusion because he found each opinion to be “inconsistent with” other evidence in the case record, namely “the March 2017 treatment notes, the December 2014 internal medicine consultative examination findings, the April and May 2016 treatment records, the February 2017 treatment records, and the claimant's self-reported activities of daily living.” (Id.) For the ...

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