United States District Court, D. Connecticut
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.
appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's denial of
benefits, claimant Lisa Jean West moves for judgment on the
pleadings, arguing that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the
medical opinion evidence and erroneously discounted Ms.
West's testimony. (ECF No. 15 at 2-10; ECF No. 19.) The
Commissioner filed a motion to affirm, arguing that the ALJ
gave appropriate weight to the medical opinions and that
substantial evidence supported the ALJ's finding that Ms.
West was not disabled. (ECF No. 18 at 5-13.) For the reasons
that follow, I GRANT in part and DENY in part West's
motion for judgment on the pleadings (ECF No. 14), DENY the
Commissioner's motion to affirm (ECF No. 18), and REMAND
for further proceedings.
Background and Legal Standard
assume the parties' familiarity with Ms. West's
medical history (summarized in a joint stipulation of facts
filed by the parties, ECF No. 16, which I adopt and
incorporate herein by reference), the ALJ opinion, the
record, the parties' briefs, and the five sequential
steps used in the analysis of disability claims. I cite only
those portions of the record and the legal standards
necessary to explain this ruling.
district court reviewing a final . . . decision pursuant to .
. . 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate
function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842,
844 (2d Cir. 1981). As such, the Commissioner's decision
“may be set aside only due to legal error or if it is
not supported by substantial evidence.” Crossman v.
Astrue, 783 F.Supp.2d 300, 302-03 (D. Conn. 2010). The
Second Circuit has defined substantial evidence as
“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)
(citation and quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence
must be “more than a mere scintilla or a touch of proof
here and there in the record.” Id.
determined here at Steps Two and Three that West had three
severe impairments (degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel
syndrome, and asthma), but that West's impairments did
not meet or equal a Listing. (R. 14-15.) At Step Four, the
ALJ concluded that West had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work, with certain
functional limitations.(R. 16.) For the RFC analysis, the ALJ
accorded “great weight” to the opinion of the
state's non-examining consultant, Dr. Jeanne Kuslis,
which indicated that West could perform light work, and
“little weight” to the opinions of Dr. Bulent
Atac, West's primary treating physician, and Dr. James
Marshall, the Social Security Administration's examining
physician, which both supported more severe functional
limitations. (R. 20-21.) The ALJ also discounted West's
testimony concerning the “intensity, persistence and
limiting effects” of her symptoms as “not
entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other
evidence in the record.” (R. 19.) West now argues that
the ALJ improperly gave Dr. Kuslis' opinion more weight
than those of Dr. Atac and Dr. Marshall, and that the ALJ
also should not have discounted West's testimony. (ECF
No. 15 at 2-13.)
conclude that the ALJ properly applied the “treating
physician rule” to Dr. Atac's opinion, and the
ALJ's decision to give both Dr. Atac and Dr.
Marshall's opinion “little weight” was
supported by substantial evidence. However, the ALJ
improperly relied on Dr. Kuslis' opinion, which did not
address subsequent evidence that undercut its conclusions, in
formulating the RFC. This error warrants remand. Accordingly,
I do not reach West's challenge to the ALJ's decision
to discount her testimony on the “intensity,
persistence and limiting effects” of her symptoms.
argues that the ALJ “grossly mischaracterized the
record” in giving “little weight” to the
medical opinion of West's primary treating physician, Dr.
Bulent Atac, and failed to correctly apply the
“treating physician rule” to his opinion. (ECF
No. 15 at 3-6.) Because the ALJ applied the substance of the
“treating physician rule, ” and the ALJ's
decision to give Dr. Atac's opinion “little
weight” was supported by substantial evidence, I
conclude that the ALJ made no error.
the “treating physician rule, ” “the
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) (internal citation and quotation
marks omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)
(effective Aug. 24, 2012 to March 26, 2017)
(same). However, “the opinion of the
treating physician is not afforded controlling weight where .
. . the treating physician issued opinions that are not
consistent with other substantial evidence . . . .”
Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 32 (2d Cir.
2004). “The regulations further provide that even if
controlling weight is not given to the opinions of the
treating physician, the ALJ may still assign some weight to
those views, and must specifically explain the weight that is
actually given to the opinion.” Schrack v.
Astrue, 608 F.Supp.2d 297, 301 (D. Conn. 2009); see
also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) (effective Aug. 24,
2012 to March 26, 2017) (“When we do not give the
treating source's medical opinion controlling weight, we
apply the [following] factors . . . in determining the weight
to give the medical opinion. We will always give good reasons
in our notice of determination or decision for the weight we
give your treating source's medical opinion.”). In
deciding how much weight to give a treating physician's
opinion, the ALJ must explicitly consider:
(1) the frequency, length, nature, and extent of treatment;
(2) the amount of medical evidence supporting the opinion;
(3) the consistency of the opinion with the remaining medical
evidence; and, (4) whether the physician is a specialist.
After considering the above factors, the ALJ must
comprehensively set forth his reasons for the weight assigned
to a treating physician's opinion.
Greek v. Colvin, 802 F.3d 370, 375 (2d Cir. 2015)
(internal citations, quotation marks, and alterations
omitted). “The failure to provide good reasons for not
crediting the opinion of a claimant's treating physician
is a ground for remand.” Id. (citations
omitted). Nonetheless, “slavish recitation of each and
every factor [is not required] where the ALJ's reasoning
and adherence to the regulation are clear.” Atwater
v. Astrue, 512 Fed.Appx. 67, 70 (2d Cir. 2013).
first accurately summarized the relevant contents of Dr.
Atac's opinion, a Disability Impairment Questionnaire.
(R. 20; R. 389-93. (Feb. 8, 2016 opinion of Dr. Atac).) The
ALJ then concluded that the opinion merited “little
weight, as it is not supported by explanation and is not
supported by the relevant medical evidence.” (R. 20.)
The ALJ reasoned that the functional limitations Dr. Atac
described were “inconsistent with the longitudinal
medical record, ” including: “neurological
examinations which documented increased tone of the lumbar
paraspinals and some decrease in sensation in an L4-L5
distribution without loss of motor strength, coordination or
reflexes and with normal gait”; “physical
examinations by the treating ...