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McKane v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 7, 2018

THOMAS JOHN MCKANE, 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. 25 & 31)

          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Thomas McKane (“McKane”) 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. 25). The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming that Decision. Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (“Def.'s Mot.”) (Doc. No. 31).

         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.

         I. RELEVANT FACTS

         The court adopts the facts to which the parties stipulated, see Def.'s Mot. at 3, and it will therefore only briefly describe the facts relevant to this opinion.

         Thomas McKane was born in October 1961, making him 50 years old on his alleged disability onset date of January 1, 2012. In 2003, while working as an emergency room technician, McKane suffered one or more injuries to his lower back. Certified Transcript of Record (“R.”) (Doc. No. 19) at 375-76, 397. An MRI conducted in January 2003, reflected disc degeneration and mild disc bulging. Id. at 375-76. The Record reflects that McKane has treated regularly with Dr. Frank Mongillo for back pain, for which Dr. Mongillo has consistently prescribed Percocet. See, e.g., id. at 386-413, 472-76, 620-46, 652-63.

         In June 2003, McKane received lumbar facet joint injections to treat lower back pain. Id. at 397-99, 467. On July 18, 2003, Neurologist James McVeety noted that, since receiving the facet joint injections, McKane “has had the persistent symptoms of fatigue, lethargy, confusion, forgetfulness, right upper extremity tremor, stabbing head pain, word finding difficulty, dyslexia and weight loss.” Id. at 467. Dr. McVeety noted that CT scans of McKane's head and abdomen conducted on July 6, 2003, were “essentially normal.” Id. Dr. McVeety ordered an MRI scan of McKane's brain, which was “[u]nremarkable.” Id. at 372.

         The Record reflects that, by 2009, McKane had been diagnosed with “Major depressive disorder, recurrent, mild, ” “generalized anxiety disorder, ” “Cannabis abuse, ” and “Dependent personality disorder.” Id. at 422. He has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Id. at 672.

         In July 2009, McKane treated at New Haven Hospital, reporting chest pain. Id. at 456-64. An echocardiogram did not reflect abnormalities. Id. On June 14, 2013, McKane saw Dr. Arumbakam Purushotham of the Connecticut Heart Group for “sharp chest pain that lasts for days and weeks, ” “palpitations and occasionally feels dizzy and lightheaded.” Id. at 444. Dr. Purushotham concluded that “most of [McKane's] symptoms are related to his lifestyle and stress. He was strongly advised to stop smoking.” Id. A chest x-ray and echocardiogram ordered by Dr. Purushotham were normal except for “mild aortic root dilation.” Id. at 534-36.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 19, 2013, McKane filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income. See R. at 259-62, 263-70. In both applications, McKane alleged disability beginning on January 1, 2012. These claims were initially denied on July 15, 2013, and denied again upon reconsideration on March 4, 2014. See id. at 121-36 (disability determination explanation of July 15, 2013); id. at 155-70 (disability determination explanation of March 4, 2014). McKane then requested a hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Deirdre Horton on April 20, 2015. At the hearing, McKane testified, as did vocational expert Richard B. Hall (“Hall”). See id. at 93-120 (transcript of hearing). McKane was represented at the hearing by Attorney Ann Farrell.

         On November 18, 2015, ALJ Horton issued an unfavorable Decision, denying McKane's applications. In her Decision, ALJ Horton concluded that McKane suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease; (2) anxiety disorder; and (3) personality disorder. Id. at 34. She noted that McKane had alleged an impairment related to a heart condition, but found that the Record did not reflect that a heart condition “causes more than slight functional limitations.” Id. She found that McKane's impairments did not meet or medically equal the listings for a disability. Id. at 34-36. She concluded that McKane has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work . . . involving occasional bending, squatting, crawling, and climbing; involving simple, routine tasks; and he works best on tasks alone, but can relate appropriately to others.” Id. at 36. She noted that McKane had previously worked as a medical technologist, as a waiter, and as a retail clerk, but found that McKane could no longer perform any of these positions. Id. at 39. Finally, she concluded that work existed in significant numbers in the national economy that could be performed by McKane, and therefore found that McKane was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 41.

         III. 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 her 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In his Motion to Reverse the Commissioner, McKane makes four arguments: (1) that ALJ Horton failed to following the treating physician rule, Pl.'s Mem. at 19-26; (2) ALJ Horton failed to adequately develop the medical record, specifically by failing to request treatment records from Dr. Cartwright, id. at 26-28; (3) ALJ Horton erred in her evaluation of McKane's testimony regarding pain, id. at 28-30; and (4) ALJ Horton's findings with respect to the number of jobs available in the economy that McKane can perform were not supported by substantial evidence, id. at 30-36. The court addresses the first two arguments together, as they are intertwined, and then addresses the remaining arguments.

         A. Treating Physician Opinion Evidence

         The Record contains treating source opinions from two physicians: Dr. Maxine Cartwright, R. at 649-51, and Dr. Frank Mongillo, id. at 640-46 (opinion of 2013), id. at 678-80 (opinion of 2015). In her Decision, ALJ Horton discussed Dr. Cartwright's and Dr. Mongillo's opinions, but gave them “little evidentiary weight.” Id. at 38-39. McKane argues that ALJ Horton erred in her evaluation of both treating sources. Pl.'s Mem. at 19-26. With respect to Dr. Cartwright in particular, McKane argues that ALJ Horton failed to develop the record adequately, which in turn prevented her from properly applying the treating physician rule to Dr. Cartwright's medical source statement. Id. at 26-30.

         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. 3:02-CV-103 (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 ...


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