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Rodriguez-Craig v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 15, 2020




         Plaintiff seeks review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, following a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, that she is not entitled to Social Security Disability benefits under the Social Security Act.

         Plaintiff raises two points of error. First, plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly apply the treating physician regulations. Second, plaintiff contends that the vocational expert improperly determined that plaintiff retained the ability to perform light work despite the ALJ's findings. For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied and defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted.


         Plaintiff's primary contention is that the ALJ unjustifiably disregarded the limitations opinions of plaintiff's treating physicians. “[T]he opinion of a claimant's treating physician as to the nature and severity of the impairment is given ‘controlling weight' so long as it ‘is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.'” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). If the ALJ does not afford a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, he must still “comprehensively set forth reasons for the weight assigned to a treating physician's opinion.” Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28 (2d Cir. 2004).

         Among the factors that the ALJ must consider when deciding whether to give a treating physician's opinion a certain weight are “the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; the relevant evidence, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings, supporting the opinion; the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; and whether the physician is a specialist in the area covering the particular medical issues.” Burgess, 537 F.3d at 129 (internal quotations and alterations omitted). If, however, “a searching review of the record” assures the reviewing court “that the substance of the treating physician rule was not traversed, ” the court should affirm the ALJ's decision despite his “failure to ‘explicitly' apply the Burgess factors.” See Estrella v. Berryhill, 925 F.3d 90, 96 (2d Cir. 2019).

         Dr. Leon Reyfman, plaintiff's treating pain management physician, opined that plaintiff was “100% unable to work.” Dr. Alan Dayan, plaintiff's orthopedic surgeon, likewise opined that plaintiff “is 100% impaired from her prior level of activity.” And Dr. R. C. Krishna, plaintiff's treating neurologist, opined that plaintiff had a 100% temporary impairment and a “temp. total disability.”

         The ALJ gave these opinions “little weight, ” explaining that:

These opinions were not made for the claimant's social security claim, but rather for his workers' compensation claim, which rely on a different standard. These terms are also very vague. It is unclear what a “total disability” or a “temporarily total disability” means or what are the significance of the percentages. They also do not spell out the claimant's exertional or non-exertional physical limitations due to her impairments. In addition, these opinions are conclusory, and determinations of disability are reserved for the Commissioner. For these reasons, the undersigned collectively gives these opinions little weight.
In addition, as for the opinion evidence, no treating source has offered an opinion as to the nature and severity of the claimant's impairments, or how they impact her ability to perform basic work-related activities. Therefore, the rules and regulations governing the weight due to a treating physician are not applicable in this instance.

         From these observations, the Commissioner's argument is simple: the impairment assessments must be disregarded because, under the relevant regulations, they are not medical opinions at all. I agree.

         According to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a), “medical opinions are statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairments(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do despite impairment(s), and your physical or mental restrictions” (emphasis added). However, § 414.1527(d)(1) makes clear that it is the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), not the treating physician, who may opine on whether a claimant “meet[s] the statutory definition of disability.” Indeed, a “statement by a medical source that you are ‘disabled' or ‘unable to work' does not mean that [the SSA] will determine that [a claimant] is disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1).

         In the usual case, a treating physician will provide, in some form, specific conclusions as to a claimant's functional capacities, supported by clinical findings. But here, Drs. Reyfman, Dayan, and Krishna all concluded, without any apparent findings as to plaintiff's specific functional capacities or limitations, that plaintiff is 100% disabled. That is a conclusion only the ALJ can make. Therefore, it was not error for the ALJ to give these conclusions little weight. See Trepanier v. Comm'r of Social Security Admin., 752 Fed.Appx. 75, 77-78 (2d Cir. 2018) (“[T]he ALJ reasonably and lawfully accorded no weight” to the treating physician's opinion where his “statement was not accompanied by clinical findings designed to support his conclusory description; rather, his use of the term [‘disabled'] seems to us incidental to his review of numerous medical issues of varying severity.”).[1]

         However, just because the ALJ properly gave plaintiff's treating physicians' opinions little weight, his conclusions still must be supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The Findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). “The substantial evidence standard means once an ALJ finds facts, [a court] can reject those facts ‘only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude ...

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