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Gravenor v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. New York

January 15, 2020

ANDREW SAUL, Defendant.


          David G. Larimer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff appeals from a denial of disability benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”). The action is one brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's final determination.

         On June 10, 2014, plaintiff, then forty-two years old, filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging an inability to work since July 26, 2013. (Administrative Transcript, Dkt. #6 at 13). His application was initially denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on August 11, 2016 via videoconference before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Julia D. Gibbs. The ALJ issued a decision on April 3, 2017, concluding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Dkt. #6 at 13-22). That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on April 4, 2018. (Dkt. #6 at 1-3). Plaintiff now appeals.

         The plaintiff has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c) requesting remand for the calculation and payment of benefits, or in the alternative, for further administrative proceedings. (Dkt. #10). The Commissioner has cross moved (Dkt. #14) for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c), affirming the Commissioner's decision. For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion is granted, the Commissioner's cross motion is denied, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings.


         Determination of whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act follows a well-known five-step sequential evaluation, familiarity with which is presumed. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986). See 20 CFR §§404.1509, 404.1520. The Commissioner's decision that a plaintiff is not disabled must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002).

         The ALJ's decision summarizes plaintiff's medical records, with emphasis on plaintiff's bilateral hip pain following two arthroscopic procedures, and cervical spondylosis (spinal osteoarthritis) with degenerative disc disease, which the ALJ concluded together constituted a severe impairment not meeting or equaling a listed impairment.

         Upon consideration of the record, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except that he requires the ability to stand and stretch for 2-3 minutes every hour without leaving the work site. Plaintiff can perform no more than occasional bending, stooping, or squatting, cannot bend from the waist to pick up items from the floor, and requires a cane for ambulation. (Dkt. #6 at 18).

         Given this RFC at the hearing, vocational expert Michael A. Klein testified that plaintiff would be unable to perform his past relevant work as a machinist (performed at the medium exertional level), but would be able to perform the representative sedentary positions of order clerk, call out operator and surveillance system monitor. (Dkt. #6 at 22, 55-57).

         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of Medical Opinion Evidence

         Initially, plaintiff objects to the ALJ's assessment of the March 21, 2016 opinion of treating internist Dr. Pankaj K. Garg (who cosigned a February 18, 2016 opinion prepared by treating nurse practitioner Nurcan Ergin), which the ALJ gave “limited” weight. (Dkt. #6 at 662-65). Dr. Garg, who began treating plaintiff in or about 1999, noted that plaintiff's diagnoses included hypertension, hyperlipidemia, uncontrolled diabetes mellitus, anxiety, gastroesophageal reflux disease, fibromyalgia, lower back pain, and bilateral shoulder and hip/groin pain. He noted that plaintiff was also treating with “multiple orthopedic specialists.” Dr. Garg opined that plaintiff can no more than occasionally lift or carry with his left arm (less than 10 pounds, for no more than 15 minutes in an 8-hour day) or his right arm (up to 20 pounds, for 30-45 minutes in an 8-hour day); must use a “walker with wheels in front” for ambulation; is limited in pushing and pulling with his upper extremities; can never stoop, kneel or crouch; can no more than occasionally climb or balance; can only occasionally reach in any direction; must avoid moderate exposure to extreme temperatures, humidity and hazards; and is likely to be absent more than four days per month due to his symptoms and/or treatment. (Dkt. #6 at 255, 662-65).

         The ALJ rejected the bulk of Dr. Garg's opinion, instead determining that plaintiff: could lift and carry up to 10 pounds frequently; could bend, stoop and squat occasionally, except that he could never bend over from the waist to pick up an item from the floor; had no limitations in climbing or balancing; had no limitations in reaching; had no limitations with respect to temperature extremes, humidity and hazards; had no issues with attendance; and only required the use of a cane for ambulation. (Dkt. #6 at 18).

         It is well-settled that “the medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is given controlling weight if it is well supported by medical findings and not inconsistent with other substantial record evidence.” Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 134 (2d Cir. 2000). In determining what weight to give a treating physician's opinion, the ALJ must consider: (1) the length, nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (2) the frequency of examination; (3) the evidence presented to support the treating physician's opinion; (4) whether the opinion is consistent with the record as whole; and (5) whether the opinion is offered by a specialist. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(d)[1]. Further, the ALJ must articulate his reasons for assigning the weight that he does accord to a treating physician's opinion. See Shaw, 221 F.3d 126 at 134. See also Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir. 1999) (“[f]ailure to provide good reasons for not crediting the opinion of a claimant's treating physician is a ground for remand”) (internal quotations omitted). An ALJ's failure to apply these factors and provide reasons for the weight given to the treating physician's report is reversible error.

         Initially, the ALJ did not engage in any overt application of the treating physician rule, and did not discuss any of the relevant factors, such as Dr. Garg's lengthy treatment history with plaintiff, the nature of his practice, the frequent nature of plaintiff's treatment with Dr. Garg, ...

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