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White v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 11, 2018

JOSHUA WHITE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge.


         Plaintiff Joshua White (“White”) brings this appeal under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code from the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), which denied his application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income. See Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. No. 1). White seeks either reversal or remand of the Decision rendered by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Louis Bonsangue, which affirmed the Commissioner's denial.[1] See Mot. to Reverse the Decision of the Comm'r (“Mot. to Reverse”) (Doc. No. 17). The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming that Decision. See Mot. to Affirm the Decision of the Comm'r (“Mot. to Affirm”) (Doc. No. 18).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner is GRANTED. The Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner is DENIED.


         White applied for disability and supplemental security income benefits on March 31, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2007. See R. at 20. The Commissioner denied White's application initially on June 11, 2015, and upon reconsideration on November 10, 2015. See id. White requested a hearing with an ALJ, which was held before ALJ Bonsangue on July 25, 2016. See id.

         On November 2, 2016, ALJ Bonsangue issued an unfavorable decision for White, affirming the Commissioner's denial and finding that White was not disabled. See id. at 36. Specifically, ALJ Bonsangue found that White's impairments did not meet or equal any listing, see id. at 23, and that, with his level of residual functional capacity (“RFC”), there were jobs in the national economy that he could perform, see id. at 35- 36. White requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on July 18, 2017. See Compl. at 1. Following that denial, ALJ Bonsangue's November 2, 2016 Decision became a final decision reviewable by this court. See id., Notice of Appeals Council Action, at 2. White then filed this appeal on August 3, 2017. See Compl.

         III. FACTS

         The court adopts the facts as stated in the parties' joint Stipulation of Medical Facts (“Stipulation”) (Doc. No. 17-2), and it will therefore only briefly describe the facts relevant to this opinion.

         White was 31 at the time of his hearing in November 2016. See R. at 400. The Record in this case begins in December 2009, when White was voluntarily admitted to the Institute of Living for suicidal ideation. See Stipulation at 1. In April 2010, White was admitted for inpatient treatment at St. Francis Hospital and, in June 2010, White was admitted to the Institute of Living. See id. at 2-3. Both treatments were for mood and medication stabilization and substance abuse issues. See id.

         White was incarcerated from July 19, 2010, to May 15, 2014. See id. at 5. From March 2015, until the Record ends in August 2016, Dr. Kent Sunderland treated White at Community Health Center (“CHC”). See id. at 7, 15. In addition to two treating source opinions from Dr. Sunderland, the Record contains psychiatric evaluations from consultative physicians who examined White, including Dr. Craig Burns, Dr. April McLean, and Dr. Jaimie Burns. See id. at 3-13. Two state agency psychologists, Dr. Michelle Leveille and Dr. Susan Uber, reviewed the record and prepared opinions regarding White's emotional impairments. See id. at 11-13. Finally, state agency medical consultant Dr. Angelina Jacobs prepared an opinion on White's physical condition based on her review of the Record. See id. at 14.[2]

         In the time since White applied for disability benefits in March 2015, he has been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and antisocial personality disorder. See id. at 7-10, 15. Prior to March 2015, White had also been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, schizoaffective disorder, alcohol and cocaine dependence, PCP abuse, and intermittent explosive disorder. See id. at 3-4.


         Under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code, it is not a function of the district court to review de novo the ALJ's decision as to whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Instead, the court may only set aside an ALJ's determination as to social security disability if the decision “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 requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” but is a “very deferential standard of review.” Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 447-48 (2d Cir. 2012). It requires “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 448. If the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, those findings are conclusive, and the court will not substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2016); see also Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998).

         V. DISCUSSION

         White argues that ALJ Bonsangue's decision should be reversed or remanded for five reasons. First, he argues that the ALJ failed to properly apply the treating physician rule to the April 2015 or September 2015 opinions of White's treating physician, Dr. Kent Sunderland. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Reverse (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 17-1) at 11-15. Second, White argues that the ALJ “cherry-picked” the opinions of the consultative examiners who examined White. See id. at 6-10. Third, he argues that the ALJ's Decision was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ improperly substituted his own opinion and those of the non-examining consultative examiners for the examining medical opinions. See id. at 3-6, 15-17. Fourth, White argues that the ALJ erred by crediting or discrediting medical opinions on the basis of Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores. See id. at 17-20. Fifth, he argues that the ALJ's RFC was not supported by substantial evidence and failed to include all of White's limitations.[3] See id. at 20-24.

         A. Treating Physician Rule

         SSA regulations give the opinions of treating physicians “controlling weight, ” so long as those opinions are “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and [are] not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in . . . [the] record.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2);[4]see also Lesterhuis v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 83, 88 (2d Cir. 2015). In other words, “the SSA recognizes a ‘treating physician' rule of deference to the views of the physician who has engaged in the primary treatment of the claimant.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003)). “Even if the treating physician's opinion is contradicted by other substantial evidence, and so is not controlling, it may still be entitled to significant weight ‘because the treating source is inherently more familiar with a claimant's medical condition than are other sources.'” Tankisi v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 521 Fed.Appx. 29, 33 (2d Cir. 2013) (Summary Order) (quoting Schisler v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 43, 47 (2d Cir. 1988)). A treating physician opinion is especially valuable “with respect to mental health issues ...

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