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Vandeusen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 10, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting COMMISSIONER OF Social Security, Defendant.


          Alvin W. Thompson, United States District Judge.

         For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and this case is remanded for additional proceedings consistent with this order.

         “A district court reviewing a final [] decision . . . [of the Commissioner of Social Security] pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C § 405(g), is performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842, 844 (2d Cir. 1981). The court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. See Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's function is to ascertain whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in reaching a conclusion and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         The plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”): “1) relied on misstatements of evidence to justify assigning less weight to the consistent opinions of two[1] treating physicians[2]; and 2) did not properly formulate Mr. Vandeusen's Residual Functional Capacity, in light of the numerous statements from Mr. Vandeusen's treating physicians and Mr. Vandeusen's own testimony, thereby making a finding for a higher level of physical capacity, and not determining Mr. Vandeusen's claim under the Grid rules.” Pl.'s Mot. to Reverse (“Doc. No. 15-1”) at 2.

         The defendant argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinions and properly assessed the plaintiff's credibility, and that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's Decision. See Def.'s Mot. to Affirm (Doc. No. 16-2) at 3-8, 9-12, 12-13, respectively.

         The court concludes that remand is appropriate because the ALJ failed to properly apply the treating physician rule. “[T]he opinion of a claimant's treating physician as to the nature and severity of the impairment is given ‘controlling weight' so long as 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.'” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)).

         “[I]f controlling weight is not given to the opinions of the treating physician, the ALJ . . . must specifically explain the weight that is actually given to the opinion.” Schrack v. Astrue, 608 F.Supp.2d 297, 301 (D. Conn. 2009) (citing Schupp v. Barnhart, No. Civ. 3:02CV103 (WWE), 2004 WL 1660579, at *9 (D. Conn. Mar. 12, 2004)). “Failure to provide ‘good reasons' for not crediting the opinion of a claimant's treating physician is a ground for remand.” Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133-34 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 505 (2d Cir. 1998)). These reasons must be stated explicitly and set forth comprehensively. See Burgin v. Asture, 348 Fed.Appx. 646, 649 (2d Cir 2009) (“The ALJ's consideration must be explicit in the record.”); Tavarez v. Barnhart, 124 Fed.Appx. 48, 49 (2d Cir. 2005) (“We do not hesitate to remand when the Commissioner . . . do[es] not comprehensively set forth reasons for the weight assigned . . . .”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Reyes v. Barnhart, 226 F.Supp.2d 523, 529 (E.D.N.Y. 2002)(“rigorous and detailed” analysis required).

         In determining the amount of weight to give to a medical opinion, the ALJ must consider all of the factors set forth in § 404.1527(c): the examining relationship, the treatment relationship (the length, the frequency of examination, the nature and extent), evidence in support of the medical opinion, consistency with the record, specialty in the medical field, and any other relevant factors. See Schaal, 134 F.3d at 504 (“all of the factors cited in the regulations” must be considered to avoid legal error).

         If the opinions are from medical sources other than “acceptable medical sources”, the ALJ must still consider the opinions, apply the factors, and explain the weight given. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(f).[3] Regardless of whether the opinion is from an acceptable medical source or an “other source”, the ALJ's explanation should be supported by the evidence and be specific enough to make clear to the claimant and any subsequent reviewers the reasons and the weight given. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(f)(2); SSR 96-2p (applicable but rescinded March 27, 2017, after the date of the ALJ's decision).

[W]here there are deficiencies in the record, an ALJ is under an affirmative obligation to develop a claimant's medical history “even when the claimant is represented by counsel or . . . by a paralegal.” Perez, 77 F.3d at 47; see also Pratts, 94 F.3d at 37 (“It is the rule in our circuit that ‘the ALJ, unlike a judge in a trial, must [] affirmatively develop the record' in light of ‘the essentially non-adversarial nature of a benefits proceeding.'[. . . ].”) (citations omitted).

Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 79 (2d Cir. 1999). See also Clark v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 143 F.3d 115, 118-19 (2d Cir. 1998) (holding that the ALJ should have sought clarifying information sua sponte because the doctor might have been able to provide a supporting medical explanation and clinical findings, that failure to include support did not mean that support did not exist, and that the doctor might have included it had he known that the ALJ would consider it dispositive).

Gaps in the administrative record warrant remand . . . . Sobolewski v. Apfel, 985 F.Supp. 300, 314 (E.D.N.Y.1997); see Echevarria v. Secretary of Health & Hum. Servs., 685 F.2d 751, 755-56 (2d Cir. 1982). . . .
The ALJ must request additional information from a treating physician . . . when a medical report contains a conflict or ambiguity that must be resolved, the report is missing necessary information, or the report does not seem to be based on medically acceptable clinical and diagnostic techniques. Id. § 404.1512(e)(1). When “an ALJ perceives inconsistencies in a treating physician's report, the ALJ bears an affirmative duty to seek out more information from the treating physician and to develop the administrative record accordingly, ” Hartnett, 21 F.Supp.2d at 221, by making every reasonable effort to re-contact the treating source for clarification of the reasoning of the opinion. Taylor v. Astrue, No. 07-CV-3469, 2008 WL 2437770, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. June 17, 2008).

Toribio v. Astrue, No. 06CV6532(NGG), 2009 WL 2366766, at *8-*10 (E.D.N.Y. July 31, 2009)(emphasis added)(holding that the ALJ who rejected the treating physician's opinion because it was broad, “contrary to objective medical evidence and treatment notes as a whole”, and inconsistent with the state agency examiner's findings had an affirmative duty to re-contact the treating physician ...

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