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Linder v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 14, 2020

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

          Christopher J. Bowes Law Office of Christopher James Bowes Attorney for Plaintiff

          Matthew J. Mailloux Richard P. Donoghue, United States Attorney Attorneys for Defendant



         Plaintiff Kevin Linder ("Plaintiff) seeks review of the final administrative decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), reached after a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (ECFNos. 27, 29, 30, 31.) For the reasons discussed herein, Plaintiff s motion for judgment on the pleadings is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, the Commissioner's cross-motion is DENIED, and the case is REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In light of the Court's decision to remand this case for further proceedings, the Court recounts only the evidence relevant to that determination.

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff worked at Brookhaven Locksmiths for sixteen years until he was terminated in January 2014. (Tr. 35.[2]) Shortly thereafter, on January 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits with the SSA. Plaintiff alleged that he became unable to work on January 13, 2014 because of the disabling conditions of depression, arthritis in the hips and neck, and chronic severe headaches. (Tr. 148-51, 173.) On August 13, 2014, the SSA denied Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 68.) Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing and appeared with an attorney before ALJ Andrew S. Weiss on August 24, 2016. (Tr. 31-66.) Daryl Patrick Didio, Ph.D., a psychological expert, and Amy H. Leopold, a vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. (Tr. 41, 61.) In a decision dated September 26, 2016, ALJ Weiss denied Plaintiff's claim and found that he was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 14-24.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 6, 2017, at which point ALJ Weiss's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4.) This appeal followed. (ECF. No. 1.)

         B. Plaintiff's Background and Testimony

         Plaintiff, a high school graduate, was born in 1964. (Tr. 34.) At the age of twenty, Plaintiff sustained multiple injuries in a serious car accident that left him comatose for nine days. Among his injuries were various fractures-including his second cervical vertebra, pelvis, right forearm, and ten ribs-as well as a concussion, collapsed lung, a ruptured spleen, hemoperitoneum, and injuries to his left cheek and right jaw that required the insertion of wires. (Tr. 54, 254, 285.) When he testified at the September 2016 hearing, Plaintiff recounted that while recovering from the accident, his physician told him “to expect severe, chronic, frequent headaches.” (Tr. 51.) He further testified that over thirty years after the accident, he “can't remember the last time [he] didn't have” a headache. (Id.)

         In 1985, the year following the accident, Plaintiff received a locksmith certification. (Tr. 174.) He was most recently employed by Brookhaven Locksmiths for sixteen years until he was terminated in January 2014. (Tr. 35.) At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he was terminated after failing to install hardware correctly because his “body was not letting me do my job to my boss's expectations.” (Tr. 34, 56.)

         Eight months before his termination, Plaintiff “realized that [he] had had a problem” and sought treatment for pain management and “psychiatric and therapy help.” (Tr. 35.) At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff's “problem” persisted such that he could still not work. He testified that the “main reason” he was unable to work was a combination of factors, including “depression, ” a lack of “focus, ” and neck pain, headaches, and osteoarthritis in both hips that increases in severity based on the temperature and weather. (Tr. 37-41.)

         During the hearing, Dr. Didio, a non-examining consultative expert, testified regarding Plaintiff's mental health treatment history. (Tr. 41.) From a psychiatric point of view, Dr. Didio explained, Plaintiff did not have “any problem with difficulty in social functioning, ” though Plaintiff did “have some physical limitations, which probably will not allow him to work on the road again, but that's for the orthopedist to comment on.” (Tr. 44.) VE Leopold answered several hypotheticals regarding Plaintiff's past relevant work and capabilities, and testified that Plaintiff's “skills are very, very specific to his . . . trade” and that his prior work was “not transferable to sedentary” work. (Tr. 62-63.)

         C. The Commissioner's Decision

         In his September 26, 2016 decision, ALJ Weiss applied the five-step process required by the SSA's regulations, described below, and denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. (Tr. 14- 24.) ALJ Weiss found that Plaintiff had met the insured status requirements of the Act, had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, and had the severe impairments of: (i) degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines and (ii) osteoarthritis of the hips. (Tr. 16.) ALJ Weiss denied Plaintiff's application, however, and reasoned that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment, that he had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of light work with certain exceptions, and, accordingly, he was capable of performing his past relevant work as a locksmith. (Tr. 19-23.)

         With respect to step four, Plaintiff's RFC, ALJ Weiss found that Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), ” except that he “can sit and stand/walk six hours in an eight-hour day and lift/carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally.” (Tr. 19-20.) Further, ALJ Weiss determined that Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record, ” including Plaintiff's activities of daily living. (Tr. 21.) In addition, ALJ Weiss credited the testimony of the VE, and noted that “[i]n comparing the claimant's residual functional capacity with the physical and mental demands of ...

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