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Taylor v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 30, 2017

SHAUN TAYLOR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY E. BERRYHILL, [1] ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, U.S.A., Defendant.

          RULING RE: CROSS MOTIONS TO REVERSE AND AFFIRM DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DOC NOS. 14 & 16)

          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Shaun Taylor (“Taylor”) brings this action under title 42, section 405(g) of the United States Code, appealing from the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied his application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income. Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (“Pl.'s Mot.”) (Doc. No. 14). The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming that Decision. Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (“Def.'s Mot.”) (Doc. No. 16).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner is GRANTED, and the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is DENIED. The case is remanded to the ALJ for proceedings consistent with this Ruling.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Taylor first applied for social security disability benefits and supplemental security income on January 24, 2013. In both applications, Taylor alleged disability beginning on January 1, 1994.[2] Taylor's applications were denied initially on April 18, 2013, and upon reconsideration were denied again on August 20, 2013. Taylor then filed a written request for a hearing on October 7, 2013, and that hearing took place before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Matthew Kuperstein on March 3, 2015. Taylor was represented at his hearing by Attorney Robert Reger. During the hearing, Taylor himself testified, as did his stepfather, William Vandewarker, and a vocational expert, Joseph Goodman. See Certified Transcript of Record (“R.”) at 41-77 (transcript of hearing).

         ALJ Kuperstein issued a written decision denying Taylor's applications on May 27, 2015. Id. at 16-30 (decision). With respect to Taylor's application for disability insurance benefits, ALJ Kuperstein found that Taylor had acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2002, which means that, in order to prove eligibility for disability insurance benefits, Taylor would have to show that he has been disabled since December 31, 2002. ALJ Kuperstein concluded that Taylor had not satisfied his burden in that respect. See id. at 20. Taylor does not dispute that finding. See Plaintiff's Memorandum (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 15) at 9.

         With respect to Taylor's application for supplemental income, ALJ Kuperstein concluded that Taylor was not engaged in substantial gainful activity, and further concluded that Taylor suffered from two severe impairments: bipolar disorder and intermittent explosive disorder (“IED”). R. at 21-22. Although he considered Taylor's claim that he also suffered from anxiety disorder, ALJ Kuperstein concluded that anxiety disorder was not a severe impairment because “there are few objective findings concerning the claimant's anxiety, and there is no evidence that he meets the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder.” Id. at 22. ALJ Kuperstein found that Taylor's severe impairments did not equal the severity of listed impairments under title 20, section 404 of the United States Code.[3]

         With respect to Taylor's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), ALJ Kuperstein concluded that Taylor could perform the full range of work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: “he is limited to work that does not involve interaction with the general public, . . does not require the collaborative efforts of others to complete work activities, ” and “involves understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions and making simple work-related decisions.” R. at 24.

         ALJ Kuperstein concluded that Taylor had no past relevant work. Id. at 28. He then concluded, based on Goodman's testimony, that Taylor could perform occupations such as packer, cleaner, or extrusion operator, id. at 28-29, and that these jobs “exist[ ] in significant numbers in the national economy, ” id. at 30. ALJ Kuperstein concluded that Taylor was not disabled and denied his applications in full. Id.

         Taylor appealed ALJ Kuperstein's decision, and the Social Security Appeals Counsel denied his appeal on November 25, 2016, rendering ALJ Kuperstein's decision final and appealable to this court pursuant to title 42, section 405(g) of the United States Code.

         III. RELEVANT FACTS

         Taylor was born in January 1979, making him thirty-eight years old at the time of this Ruling. He attended school through eleventh grade.[4] See R. at 280. Since leaving school in 1998, Taylor has worked sporadically in various part-time positions, including food service positions at several restaurants and maintenance work at a laundromat, and has done construction work for friends and family, but has never held a long-term job. See id. at 242 (work history form submitted by Taylor); id. at 28 (decision of ALJ Kuperstein concluding that Taylor has no relevant work experience); id. at 57-58 (testimony of Taylor regarding his lack of work experience).

         Taylor's medical evidence of record begins on October 20, 1999, and reflects that Taylor was diagnosed with opiate dependency and cannabis abuse. See id. at 607-15. The record reflects that Taylor has not used illicit drugs since at least 2003 when he began taking methadone. See, e.g., id. at 552, 620. Taylor has treated at the APT Foundation for addiction-related treatment as early as 2003, see id. at 616-61, and the record indicates that he has treated regularly at the APT Foundation--including participating in group and individual therapy and receiving methadone--since at least 2012, see id. at 339-593. Taylor has earned the responsibility to take six bottles of methadone home with him at a time. See id. at 374, 380, 463.

         An intake statement from the APT Foundation dated April 14, 2003, indicates that Taylor had been diagnosed with anxiety and bi-polar disorder by Dr. Patel at the Foxon Medical Center. Id. at 618. Treatment notes from the APT Foundation dated May 13, 2003, reflect that Taylor had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder, and was reporting “anxiety / panic and uncontrollable anger.” Id. at 632. The treatment notes generally reflect a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and they also reflect that Taylor reports symptoms consistent with social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. See id. at 434-593 (treatment notes from APT Foundation).

         Taylor was first diagnosed with IED on October 21, 2013, as reflected in both treatment notes and a letter authored by Taylor's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Uzelia Louis-Jacques. R. at 538 (letter); id. at 577-78 (treatment notes). Subsequent treatment notes reflect this ongoing diagnosis. See, e.g., id. at 542, 545, 550, 554.

         The record contains medical opinion evidence from four sources: treating psychiatrist Uzelia Louis-Jacques, treating psychiatrist Hassam Jefee-Bahloul, and state medical consultant psychologists Gregory Hanson and Thomas Hill.[5]

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under title 42, section 405(g) of the United States Code, it is not the district court's function to determine de novo whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Instead, the court is limited to two lines of inquiry: whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard, and whether the record contains “substantial evidence” to support his decision. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999). “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “To determine on appeal whether an ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight.” Williams on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988).

         V. ANALYSIS

         In his Motion to Reverse, Taylor asserts four bases upon which ALJ Kuperstein's decision should be reversed. First, Taylor argues that ALJ Kuperstein failed to give proper weight to the medical opinions of the two treating physicians who submitted medical opinions, Dr. Louis-Jacques and Dr. Jefee-Bahloul. Pl.'s Mem. at 12-14. Second, Taylor argues that ALJ Kuperstein ignored substantial evidence of Taylor's IED in making his RFC determination. Id. at 14. Third, Taylor argues that ALJ Kuperstein erred in giving little weight to the testimony of Taylor's stepfather. Id. at 14-15. Fourth, Taylor argues that ALJ Kuperstein's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 15-16.

         In addition, Taylor's Memorandum suggests he is raising several additional issues, though he does not expressly style them as claims, including: that ALJ Kuperstein erred in finding that anxiety disorder is not one of Taylor's severe impairments, that ALJ Kuperstein erred in his credibility determination with respect to Taylor's testimony, and that ALJ Kuperstein's RFC determination did not adequately take into consideration the functional limitations caused by IED. See infra Section V(B).

         A. ALJ Kuperstein Did Not Comply with the Treating Physician Rule Taylor argues that ALJ Kuperstein failed to properly weigh the opinion testimony of his treating physicians, Drs. Louis-Jacques and Jefee-Bahloul. Pl.'s Mem. at 13. Taylor asserts that ALJ Kuperstein cited “no medical evidence” to support his conclusion, and that he placed too much weight on Taylor's testimony regarding his daily activities. Id. Taylor further asserts that the evidence with respect to Taylor's activities does not contradict Dr. Louis-Jacques's assessment and therefore was not a basis to give little weight to her opinion. Id.

         The treating source rule requires that a treating source's medical opinion be given controlling weight if 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.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). Even if controlling weight is not given, “some weight may still be attached to that opinion, and the ALJ must still designate and explain the weight that is actually given to the opinion.” Schupp v. Barnhart, No. 3:02CV103 (WWE), 2004 WL 1660579, at *9 (D. Conn. Mar. 12, 2004); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2) (“Generally, we give more weight to medical opinions from your treating sources, since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of your medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence . . . .”). When a medical opinion is not given controlling weight, title 20, section 416.927 of the Code of Federal Regulations (“section 416.927”) mandates that ALJs consider the following factors in assigning weight to the medical opinion: (1) whether the provider has actually examined the claimant; (2) the treatment relationship, including the length, frequency of examination, and nature and extent of the relationship; (3) whether the provider presents relevant evidence to support his or her conclusions, particularly objective evidence; (4) the degree to which the provider's opinion is consistent with the medical record as a whole; (5) whether the provider is a specialist giving an opinion within his or her specialty; and (6) any other factors which support or contradict the provider's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927. Section 416.927 further provides, “We will always give good reasons in our notice of determination or decision for the weight we give [the] treating source's medical opinion.”

         1. Opinion of Dr. Jefee-Bahloul

         In his medical source statement, Dr. Jefee-Bahloul reached the following conclusions: Taylor was mildly limited in his capacity to understand and remember simple instructions; moderately limited in his ability to carry out simple instructions and to make judgments on simple work-related decisions; markedly limited in his capacity to understand and remember complex instructions; and extremely limited in his ability to carry out complex instructions and make judgments on complex work-related decisions. R. at 604. Dr. Jefee-Bahloul noted in this section that “on cognitive testing patient exhibits significant impairment in concentration when asked to do serial 7's or spell WORLD backwards. Also patient has issues w/ memory. Cognitive testing exhibits impairment in abstract thinking and judgment.” Id. Dr. Jefee-Bahloul further found that Taylor was markedly limited in his capacity to interact appropriately with the public, supervisors, or co-workers, and markedly limited in his capacity to “[r]espond appropriately to usual work situations and to changes in a routine work setting.” Id. at 605. Dr. Jefee-Bahloul noted, “In a previous work situation, patient's anger, impulsivity caused him to be aggressive, for example throwing a knife in a kitchen.” Id. Dr. Jefee-Bahloul also notes, “Given [Taylor's] concrete thinking process, patient can't tolerate any changes in life structure which may lead to exacerbation of mood symptoms.” Id.

         In according Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's opinion little weight, ALJ Kuperstein acknowledged that Taylor “has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and intermittent explosive disorder” and “has stated that these problems prevent him from sustaining attention and concentration for extended periods.” Id. at 27. ALJ Kuperstein further noted, “Mental status examinations reveal intermittent disturbances in mood and affect, which likely prevent him from performing complex work activities, as Dr. Jefee-Bahloul finds.” Id. Despite these findings, ALJ Kuperstein broadly asserted that Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's other conclusions are “not consistent with the medical evidence, including his own treatment notes.” Id. He did not, however, cite to any medical evidence to support this assertion.

         The Commissioner asserts that ALJ Kuperstein's decision was supported by medical evidence, albeit evidence that was cited elsewhere in ALJ Kuperstein's opinion as opposed to the treating physician opinion analysis. See Defendant's Memorandum (“Def.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 16-1) at 10. However, the Commissioner has failed to direct the court to any evidence cited elsewhere that actually does support ALJ Kuperstein's decision. For example, the Commissioner argues that Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's opinion about Taylor's ability to interact with the public is contradicted by treatment notes, see Defendant's Memoradum at 10-11, but ALJ Kuperstein actually agreed with Dr. Jefee-Bahloul about this limitation. R. at 27 (“The medical evidences supports the restrictions Dr. Jefee-Bahloul describes in the claimant's abilities to perform complex tasks and interact with the public . . . .”). Therefore, even assuming that the court can treat evidence cited elsewhere as support for an ALJ's treating physician determination, the Commissioner has failed to cite any medical evidence cited elsewhere by ALJ Kuperstein that supports his decision with respect to treating physician opinion evidence.

         With respect to Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's conclusions that Taylor was mildly limited in his ability to understand and remember simple work instructions and moderately limited in his ability to carry out simple work tasks and make judgments about simple work tasks, ALJ Kuperstein found that Taylor's ability to “prepare simple meals, manage his own medications, shop, and pay his own bills” implies that Taylor “is less limited . . . than Dr. Jefee-Bahloul indicates.” Id. However, Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's conclusions of mild and moderate limitations in these areas are simply not refuted by Taylor's daily activities. On the medical source statement form completed by Dr. Jefee-Bahloul (a form produced by the Social Security Administration), a “mild” limitation is defined as “a slight limitation” with which “the individual can generally function well” and a “moderate” limitation is defined as “more than a slight limitation in this area but the individual is still able to function satisfactorily.'[6] R. at 604. Given that even a moderate limitation allows for “satisfactor[y]” functioning, Taylor's quite limited daily activities simply do not undermine Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's medical opinion. Cf. Quinones on Behalf of Quinones v. Chater, 117 F.3d 29, 35 (2d Cir. 1997) (rejecting ALJ's daily-activities explanation on the ground that while “these activities suggest that Jennifer is ‘sometimes' able to complete simple, age-appropriate tasks, they do not refute [evidence] that Jennifer has ‘constant' difficulty in completing both simple and complex age-appropriate tasks”).

         ALJ Kuperstein also disagreed with Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's opinion with respect to Taylor's ability to “respond to usual work settings and change.” R. at 27. First, ALJ Kuperstein noted that “the evidence establishes that [Taylor] tolerates life stressors without an increase in objective mental status abnormalities.” Id. ALJ Kuperstein does not cite any record evidence to support this statement, nor does he define what an “objective mental status abnormality” is. Yet, at the hearing, Taylor offered uncontroverted testimony that he suffers from explosive rage that has led him to, among other things, put his head through a car window, throw a butcher knife across a kitchen at work, and challenge a supervisor to a fight. See id. at 61-62. The knife throwing incident was, as described above, expressly referenced by Dr. Jefee-Bahloul in his medical source statement. Id. at 605. In addition, outbursts of rage are the defining features of IED, a condition that ALJ Kuperstein found was a severe impairment in his Decision.[7] The court therefore concludes that ALJ Kuperstein's finding that Taylor “tolerates life stressors without an increase in objective mental status abnormalities” not only is not supported by substantial evidence but is, in fact, plainly contradicted by the record.

         ALJ Kuperstein disagreed with Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's opinion that Taylor is markedly limited in his capacity to interact with coworkers and supervisors on the ground that Taylor “has friends, [8] shops, spends time with family, and gets along well with treatment providers.” Id. The medical source form that Dr. Jefee-Bahloul completed defines “marked” limitation as “a substantial loss in the ability to effectively function.” Id. at 604. As noted above, in support of his findings Dr. Jefee-Bahloul specifically cited Taylor's outbursts of rage, including throwing a knife across a kitchen. Id. at 605. Therefore, the record is clear that Dr. Jefee-Bahloul based his medical opinion on Taylor's IED, a medical condition that, as aforementioned, ALJ Kuperstein found to be a “severe impairment” of Taylor. Dr. Jefee-Bahloul's opinion that Taylor's IED creates marked limitations in his ability to interact with coworkers and supervisors is therefore not refuted by ...


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