United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING RE: CROSS MOTIONS TO REVERSE AND AFFIRM
DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DOC NOS. 14 & 16)
C. Hall United States District Judge.
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.
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.
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. 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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
was born in January 1979, making him thirty-eight years old
at the time of this Ruling. He attended school through
eleventh grade. 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).
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.
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).
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.
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
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
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).
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.
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
Opinion of Dr. Jefee-Bahloul
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.
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.
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.
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.' 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”).
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. 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.
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,  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 ...