United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO REVERSE AND THE DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER
MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.
This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Miguel Santiago‘s, application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. It is brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
Santiago now moves for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"). In the alternative, Santiago seeks an order remanding his case for a rehearing. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision.
The issues presented are whether (1) the ALJ erred in characterizing the evidence; (2) the plaintiff has impairments that are recognized by the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525; (3) the ALJ failed to apply properly the treating physician rule; (4) the ALJ improperly assessed the plaintiffs credibility; (5) the ALJ improperly determined the plaintiffs residual functional capacity; and (6) the ALJ improperly determined that the plaintiff could perform his past relevant work.
For the following reasons, Mr. Santiago‘s motion for an order reversing or remanding the ALJ‘s decision is denied and the Commissioner‘s motion for an order affirming that decision is granted.
Mr. Santiago suffers from polysubstance abuse, several mental health disorders, and certain physical ailments. On March 28, 2011, Mr. Santiago filed an application for disability benefits for an alleged disability that commenced on June 1, 2009. (Id. at 63, 65.) On July 4, 2011, a disability adjudicator in the Social Security Administration denied his initial request for disability benefits and thereafter denied his request for reconsideration. (Id. at 63.)
On January 24, 2013, he appeared with counsel for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. On March 8, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (Id. at 60-76.) On October 29, 2014, the appeals council denied Mr. Santiago‘s request for review of that decision thereby making the ALJ‘s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-7.) This appeal followed.
III. Scope of Review
District courts perform an appellate function when reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842, 844 (2d Cir.1981). A reviewing court will uphold an ALJ‘s decision unless it is based upon legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir.1998). '"Substantial evidence‘ is less than a preponderance, but 'more than a mere scintilla‘ and as much as 'a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.‘" Crossman v. Astrue, 783 F.Supp.2d 300, 303 (D. Conn. 2010) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a district court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); see also New York v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 903 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) (stating that the court is required to "review the record as a whole" in assessing whether the evidence supports the Commissioner‘s position) (citations omitted). Still, the ALJ need not "reconcile every conflicting shred of medical testimony . . . ." Miles v. Harris, 645 F.2d 122, 124 (2d Cir. 1981). In sum, "the role of the district court is quite limited and substantial deference is to be afforded the Commissioner‘s decision." Morris v. Barnhardt, No. 02 CIV. 0377 AJP, 2002 WL 1733804, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2002). Further, if the Commissioner‘s decision is supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence to support the plaintiffs contrary position. Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982). Courts cannot supply a new or different rationale for an administrative agency‘s decision. S.E.C v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 94-95 (1943).
To be considered disabled, an individual‘s impairment must be "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot . . . engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the SSA, the ALJ must follow a five-step evaluation process as promulgated by the Commissioner.
IV. The Administrative Law Judge’s Decision
The ALJ determined that Santiago was not disabled. At step one, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff has not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since June 1, 2009, the onset of his alleged disability. (R. at 65.) At step two, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had the following severe impairments: polysubstance abuse, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. (Id. at 65-66.) At step three, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff did not have a listed impairment or impairment equal to a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of the regulations. (Id. at 66-68.) At step four, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform his past work as an injection-molding machine tender and a store laborer. (Id. at 68-73.) In so doing, the ALJ gave "little weight to the opinions of the plaintiffs treating physician who provided psychiatric care and gave "the greatest weight to the opinions of a social worker who led the plaintiff in group treatment.
A. The ALJ’s Characterization of the Record
The plaintiff argues that a remand is required because the ALJ mischaracterized the record in three ways. (ECF No. 18-1 at 10-11.) First, the ALJ said that Mr. Santiago‘s ''primary diagnosis has been substance abuse rather than any acute mental illness.'' (Id.) Second, the ALJ said that Mr. Santiago ''is able to care for his young child.'' (Id.) Third, the ALJ described Dr. Richard Feuer‘s treatment of Mr. Santiago as medication management services. (Id.)
When an ALJ‘s determination is not supported by substantial evidence, a social security plaintiff is entitled to an order reversing or remanding the case. Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012). It is not enough for a plaintiff to point to evidence that contradicts the ALJ‘s determination if that determination is supported by substantial evidence. Id. ''Although required to develop the record fully and fairly, an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence submitted. An ALJ‘s failure to cite specific evidence does not indicate that such evidence was not considered.'' Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). ''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 otherwise.'' Id. at 447-48 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
1.Mr. Santiago’s “Primary Diagnosis ”
The ALJ determined that the Mr. Santiago suffers from severe impairments including polysubstance abuse, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder and ''noted that the claimant‘s primary diagnosis has been substance abuse rather than any acute mental illness.'' (R. at 65, 70.) The plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ‘s statement about substance abuse being a ''primary diagnosis.'' The ALJ‘s finding is supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ considered that Mr. Santiago first sought treatment to obtain sobriety (id. at 70), which the record reflects (e.g., Id. at 359.) The ALJ stated, with support from the record, that the plaintiff was treated in the context of substance abuse remission. (Id. at 70.) The record shows that the plaintiff was medicated to treat his drug addiction. (E.g. id at 306; see also ECF No. 25-1 at 22 (collecting record citations).) While the plaintiff says that the ''ALJ is wrong'' because he has been diagnosed with several mental illnesses (ECF No. 18-1 at 10), the ALJ agreed that several of these mental illnesses-depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder-constituted severe impairments, and analyzed them together with the plaintiffs polysubstance abuse. (R. at 65). Thus, the record is not so devoid of evidence that Mr. Santiago‘s ''primary diagnosis'' was substance abuse that ''a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise, '' Brault, 683 F.3d at 448, and, in any event, the plaintiff fails to show how this characterization has prejudiced him.
2.Mr. Santiago’s Care for his Child
The plaintiff argues that the ALJ was wrong to determine that Mr. Santiago can care for his young child and that the ALJ‘s own opinion contradicts that finding. (ECF No. 18-1 at 10.)
The ALJ‘s statement that Mr. Santiago ''is able to care for his young child'' does not contradict the finding that ''the claimant testified that he has not lived with the child for approximately two years and stated that he only sees the child twice per week, '' as the plaintiff claims. (R. 70, 72.) Simply because a person ...