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Lockwood v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

January 23, 2019

Stephen Lockwood, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant-Appellee.

          Submitted: August 15, 2018

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York

         Plaintiff-Appellant Stephen Lockwood appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Christian F. Hummel, Magistrate Judge), upholding the decision of Defendant-Appellee Commissioner of Social Security to deny his application for disability insurance benefits. We conclude that the Commissioner's decision was not supported by substantial evidence because it relied on testimony from a vocational expert that appeared to be in conflict with the authoritative guidance set out in the Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Because the Commissioner was not entitled to rely on this testimony without first identifying and inquiring into the apparent conflict, the District Court erred in declining to set aside the Commissioner's benefits decision.

         Accordingly, we REVERSE the District Court's judgment and REMAND for further proceedings.

          Patrick G. Radel, Getnick Livingston Atkinson & Priore, LLP, Utica, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Andreea L. Lechleitner, Special Assistant United States Attorney, (Stephen P. Conte, Regional Chief Counsel - Region II, on the brief), Office of the General Counsel, United States Social Security Administration, New York, NY, for Grant C. Jaquith, United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York, Syracuse, NY, for Defendant-Appellee.

          Before: Cabranes and Pooler, Circuit Judges, and Oetken, District Judge [*]

          J. PAUL OETKEN, DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff-Appellant Stephen Lockwood appeals from a June 21, 2017 judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Christian F. Hummel, Magistrate Judge), upholding the decision of Defendant-Appellee Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") to deny Lockwood's application for disability insurance benefits. On appeal, Lockwood argues among other things that the District Court should have set aside the benefits denial as unsupported by substantial evidence because the denial relied on expert testimony that contained an unexamined apparent conflict with an authoritative Department of Labor publication, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. We agree with Lockwood on this point and therefore REVERSE the District Court's judgment and REMAND for further proceedings.

          I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         On November 11, 2011, Lockwood was injured in an automobile accident while working as a landscaper. In the following months, Lockwood experienced abnormal sensation in his hands and severe pain in his neck and was, according to Drs. Srinivasan Mani and Mark Smith, disabled from performing his regular job as a consequence. In terms of diagnosis, the doctors believed that the unusual feeling in Lockwood's hands might be a result of carpal tunnel syndrome and that the neck pain might be attributable to herniated disks in Lockwood's cervical spine.

         To address the neck pain, Dr. Smith advised Lockwood to undergo disk-repair surgery. Dr. Richard Tallarico, an orthopedic surgeon, concurred in this advice, and he performed the recommended surgery on November 7, 2012.

         Following the surgery, Lockwood consulted several times with Nurse Practitioner Catherine Tomaiuoli. In an early consultation, Nurse Tomaiuoli observed that Lockwood's neck pain persisted and that he had a reduced range of motion in his left shoulder, as well as difficulty with certain arm movements. She recommended that Lockwood receive a magnetic resonance imaging ("MRI") scan and that he restrict the amount of weight he lifted.

         In June 2013, Lockwood received the recommended MRI. Based on the results, Nurse Tomaiuoli referred Lockwood to Dr. John Cannizzaro, an orthopedic surgeon, who examined Lockwood and on July 16, 2013, concluded that his shoulder was 30% disabled. During a subsequent consultation, Dr. Tallarico, the surgeon who had operated on Lockwood's neck, deemed Lockwood to be 75% impaired as a result of his continuing neck and shoulder pain and his limited range of motion. Dr. Tallarico considered Lockwood's disability to be permanent.

         Meanwhile, Lockwood was following up on his doctors' suggestion that he suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. On May 22, 2013, he received carpal tunnel release surgery on his right wrist from Dr. Kevin Setter. During a follow-up examination with Nurse Practitioner Carmelita Woods, however, Lockwood reported that he was continuing to experience tenderness and abnormal sensation in his hands. After examining Lockwood, Nurse Woods concluded that Lockwood had 50% and 25% impairments in his right and left hands, ...


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