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Rozanski v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 23, 2019



          MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.

         In this appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's denial of benefits, Richard Rozanski argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in (1) evaluating the medical opinion evidence related to Mr. Rozanski's mental impairments; and (2) failing to explain why he found that Mr. Rozanski's testimony was not credible. He also asserts that the Appeals Council failed to apply the appropriate standard for considering new evidence. I agree with Mr. Rozanski's first two arguments and remand the case to the Commissioner.

         I assume the parties' familiarity with Mr. Rozanski's medical history (summarized in a stipulation of facts filed by the parties, ECF No. 18, which I adopt and incorporate herein by reference), the ALJ's opinion, the record, 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.


         “A 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). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, a district court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. 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 correct legal principles were applied in reaching the decision, and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence to support the plaintiff's contrary position. Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982). 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.


         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Opinion Evidence

         Mr. Rozanski argues that the ALJ improperly assigned “little weight” to the opinions of his treating psychiatrist and a physician's assistant while assigning “great weight” to the opinion of a consulting psychologist and “some weight” to non-examining state agency consultants. I find that the ALJ failed to adequately explain his reasoning for assigning “little weight” to the opinion of Mr. Rozanski's treating psychiatrist and that his conclusion was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. I therefore remand on that ground without reaching his other arguments as to medical opinion evidence.

         Under 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).[2] “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). The Second Circuit has required that:

[T]he ALJ must explicitly consider, inter alia: (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. 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).

         Mr. Rozanski asserts that the ALJ erred by assigning “little weight” to the opinion of Dr. Christopher Yergen, his treating psychiatrist. Dr. Yergen completed two Mental Health Impairment Questionnaires jointly with Mr. Rozanski's therapist, Linda U McEwen, LCSW. R. 1495-99; 1506-10.[3] On November 12, 2014, Dr. Yergen opined that Mr. Rozanski had “[l]imited ability” to “persist in simple activities without interruption from psychological symptoms, ” to “handl[e] frustration appropriately, ” or to “ask[] questions or request[] assistance.” R. 1498-99. The opinion explained that Mr. Rozanski's “depressed mood and preoccupation with suicidal thoughts could impact [his] attention and concentration and completion of tasks.”

         On March 30, 2015, Dr. Yergen opined that Mr. Rozanski had “[m]arked” limitations across a variety of domains, including the ability to “[c]arry out detailed instructions, ” “[s]ustain ordinary routine without supervision, ” [c]omplete a workday without interruptions from psychological symptoms, ” and “[p]erform at a consistent pace without rest periods of unreasonable length or frequency.” R. 1509. He estimated that Mr. Rozanski's impairments would cause him to be absent from work “[m]ore than three times per month.” Id. A vocational expert testified that an individual who was consistently out of work one or two times per month “would probably not be employable” in the national economy. R. 99.

         The ALJ assigned “little weight to Dr. Yergen's opinion.” R. 43. He explained that the opinion was “inconsistent with the overall evidence” because “the claimant is generally intact cognitively and his suicidal thoughts are attributable to his medication noncompliance.” Id. Further, the ALJ explained that Dr. Yergen's opinion was “inconsistent with the claimant's level of daily activities, which involves caring for himself, household chores and helping care for his younger children.” Id. at 44. Finally, the ALJ noted ...

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