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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 23, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

Plaintiff Clarence Smith appealed from the adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for a period of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. On January 4, 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge William I. Garfinkel issued a recommended ruling (the “Recommended Ruling) recommending that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed. (doc. 39) On January 14, 2016, Smith timely filed an objection to the Recommended Ruling (the “Objection”). (doc. 40) On January 22, 2016, the Commissioner filed a reply to Smith’s objections (the “Reply”). (doc. 41).

For the reasons set forth below, Smith’s objections are overruled and the Recommended Ruling is adopted in full.

I. Background

The court assumes the parties’ familiarity with the underlying facts. The parties were unable to stipulate to the facts of this case, but were willing to stipulate to a general medical chronology, which is incorporated in this decision by reference. (doc. 28)

II. Standard of Review

“In the face of an objection to a Magistrate Judge’s recommended ruling, the [d]istrict [c]ourt makes a de novo determination of those portions of the recommended ruling to which an objection is made.” Smith v. Barnhart, 406 F.Supp.2d 209, 212 (D. Conn. 2005); see also Burden v. Astrue, 588 F.Supp.2d 269, 271 (D. Conn. 2008). The court may adopt, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Magistrate Judge's recommended ruling. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b).

A district court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited. Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). It is not the court’s function to determine de novo whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Rather, the court must review the record to determine first whether the correct legal standard was applied and then whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner. 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 . . . .”); see Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 181 (2d Cir. 1998); Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998).

When determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court must consider the entire record, examining the evidence from both sides. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence need not compel the Commissioner’s decision; rather substantial evidence need only be evidence that “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion” being challenged. Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “Even where the administrative record may also adequately support contrary findings on particular issues, the ALJ’s factual findings must be given conclusive effect so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.” Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Decisions of the Appeals Council refusing review are discretionary, and therefore “may be reviewable to the extent that [the decision] rests on an explicit mistake of law or other egregious error.” Mills v. Apfel, 244 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001).

III. Discussion

Smith raises six general categories of objection to Magistrate Judge Garfinkel’s Recommended Ruling: (1) the ALJ erred in not calling a vocational expert, Objection at 1-5; (2) the ALJ did not properly evaluate the medical opinions in the record, Objection at 5-13; (3) the ALJ’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) assessment was not supported by substantial evidence, Objection at 13-17; (4) the ALJ did not comply with Social Security regulations on cases involving drug addiction and alcoholism, Objection at 17-19; (5) the Appeals Council erred by declining to consider the additional evidence Smith provided after the hearing, Objection at 19-29; (6) some of the ALJ’s credibility findings were not based on substantial evidence, Objection at 29-31.

The Commissioner correctly points out that Smith’s Objection fails to identify any specific portion of the recommended ruling as erroneous, and instead simply reiterates his original objections. Reply at 4 (citing Johnston v. Colvin, 2014 WL 1304715, at *1 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014)). Accordingly, the Recommended Ruling need only be reviewed for “clear error, ” id.; however, even if Smith’s Objections were reviewed under a less-exacting standard, for the reasons discussed below they would still be inadequate.

A. The ALJ’s Decision Not to Use a Vocational Expert

Smith asserts that the ALJ improperly declined to use a vocational expert in his Step-Five determination that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Smith could perform. Instead, he asserts that the ALJ improperly relied on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, set out at 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App’x 2.

The Medical-Vocational Guidelines, also known as the “grid rules, ” are used to determine whether an individual with a severe impairment that does not meet a listed impairment should be considered “disabled” and therefore eligible for benefits. The grid rules direct a determination of “not disabled” when the claimant can do substantially all of the work represented by the exertional requirements in a given Table, and his age, education, and past work experience meet the criteria of the rule. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569; 416.969; see also Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 468 (1983) (holding reliance on the grid rules did not conflict with the Social Security Act). If the claimant’s work capacity is “significantly diminished” by nonexertional impairments, however, the ALJ should not rely on the grid rules because “they fail to take into account claimant's nonexertional impairments.” Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 605-06 (2d Cir. 1986). The Second Circuit has defined “significantly diminished” to mean “the additional loss of work capacity beyond a negligible one or, in other words, one that so narrows a claimant’s possible range of work as to deprive him of a meaningful employment opportunity.” Id.; see also Zabala v. Astrue, 595 F.3d 402, 410-11 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting same). Accordingly, where an ALJ determines that a claimant meets all of the exertional requirements for a given grid rule and that claimant also has nonexertional impairments, the ALJ must consider the “intermediate question” of “whether the range of work [the claimant] could perform was so significantly diminished as to require the introduction of vocational testimony.” Bapp, 802 F.2d at 606.

In the present case, the ALJ found that Smith suffered from at least two severe nonexertional impairments: depression and cocaine abuse in partial remission. R. at 14. He also determined that Smith had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. sections 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that he found that Smith could “remember and carry out at most simple instructions.” R. at 18. The ALJ subsequently explicitly questioned whether the grid rules should be applied in Smith’s case in light of his nonexertional impairments, and concluded that “the additional limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled light work.” R. at 20. The ALJ further stated that “[s]ince [the] only additional limitations found above in the claimant’s residual functional capacity is consistent with a full range of light work from a mental standpoint, these additional limitations would have no material effect on the occupational base contemplated by [the relevant guide rule].” Id.

It is clear that the ALJ’s ruling thus includes a considered determination that Smith’s nonexertional impairments did not “significantly diminish” his capacity to work such that a vocational expert was needed. Smith argues that the ALJ’s explanation of that determination is inadequate. He points to Lyde v. Colvin, 2016 WL 53822 (D. Conn. Jan. 5, 2016), where a district court rejected as inadequate an ALJ’s statement that the claimant’s “limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled light work” because that explanation focused on “the Grid's occupational base rather than plaintiff’s own limitations.” Id. at *7. In Lyde, however, the claimant’s nonexertional limitations were more severe than in the present case-for instance, the Lyde ALJ found that the impairments “enable[d] her to perform only ‘simple, routine, repetitious work with one or two-step instructions, ’ and allow her ‘only occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, or supervisors.’” Id. In Smith’s case, by contrast, the nonexertional limitations at issue-which restricted Smith to carrying out simple instructions- are already taken into account in the grid rules. See Zabala, 595 F.3d at 410-11 (allowing application of grid rules for unskilled light work where plaintiff’s mental condition restricted her, inter alia, to carrying out only simple instructions); Lewis v. Astrue, 2012 WL 6097303, at *7 (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2012), aff’d sub nom. Lewis v. Colvin, 548 F. App’x 675 (2d Cir. 2013) (same); see also Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 422 (2d Cir. 2013) (in the context of depression, observing that the ALJ determined that the plaintiff could perform the “basic mental demands of unskilled work, such as following simple instructions . . . ”).[1]

Thus, the ALJ’s decision to rely on the grid rules instead of a vocational expert was appropriate under the statute and regulations.[2]

B. ALJ’s Weighting of Medical Evidence

Smith objects to the ALJ’s weighting and consideration of medical evidence provided by five doctors. His objections are generally governed by two standards: the treating-physician rule and the substantial-evidence standard.

First, under the “treating-physician rule, ” a treating physician’s opinion on the issues of the nature and severity of a claimant’s impairments is given “controlling weight” if the opinion is well-supported by medically-acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the case record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003). The opinion of a treating source will not be afforded controlling weight, however, where the treating physician “issued opinions that are not consistent with other substantial evidence in the record, such as the opinions of other medical experts.” Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 32 (2d Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). “[T]he less consistent th[e] opinion is with the record as a whole, the less weight it will be given.” Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir. 1999).

In circumstances where the treating physician’s opinion is not entitled to receive “controlling” weight, the regulations require the ALJ to consider several factors to determine how much weight the physician’s opinion should receive. Halloran, 362 F.3d at 32. Those factors include: “(i) the frequency of examination and the length, nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (ii) the evidence in support of the treating physician’s opinion; (iii) the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; (iv) whether the opinion is from a specialist; and (v) other factors brought to the Social Security Administration's attention that tend to support or contradict the opinion.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(6), 416.927(c)(2) - (6). The ALJ must set forth his or her reasons for the weight assigned to a treating physician’s opinion in the notice of determination. Id. Failure to provide sufficient reasons for not crediting the opinion of a claimant’s treating physician is a ground for remand. Sanders v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 506 F. App’x 74, 77 (2d Cir. 2012); Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 129 (2d Cir. 2008); Snell, 177 F.3d at 133.

The substantial evidence standard, to reiterate from above, “means once an ALJ finds facts, [the court] can reject those facts only if a reasonable factfinder would have to concludeotherwise.” Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Com’r, 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d ...

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