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Blanchard v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 22, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Preliminary Statement

         The Plaintiff, John P. Blanchard, brings this appeal under Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He challenges the denial of his application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits under the Act and requests a reversal of the Commissioner's decision on multiple bases. The Commissioner opposes the motion and avers that the Commissioner's findings were appropriately arrived at and are supported by substantial evidence in the record. She asks this Court to affirm the decision. For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision is DENIED. The Defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         The Plaintiff sought a determination that he was disabled as of March 22, 2010, the amended purported date of onset, through the date of the hearing. A person is “disabled” under the Act if that person is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death of which has lasted or can expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). A physical or mental impairment is one that “results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). In addition, a claimant must establish that his “physical or mental impairments are of such severity that [he] is not only unable to do [his] previous work but cannot, considering [his] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy …” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The regulations promulgated by the Commissioner establish a five-step analysis for evaluating disability claims. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. First, the Commissioner considers if the claimant is, at present, working in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(I). If not, the Commissioner next considers if the claimant has a medically severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the severity requirement is met, the third inquiry is whether the impairment is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations or is equal to a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii); Pt. 404, Subpt. P. App. 1. If so, the disability is granted. If not, the fourth inquiry is to determine whether, despite the severe impairment, the claimant's residual functional capacity allows him or her to perform any past work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If a claimant demonstrates that no past work can be performed, it then becomes incumbent upon the Commissioner to come forward with evidence that substantial gainful alternative employment exists which the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v); McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014). If the Commissioner fails to come forward with such evidence, the claimant is entitled to disability benefits. See Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990).

         It is well-settled that the District Court will reverse an ALJ's decision only when it is based upon legal error or when it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Beauvoir v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive …”). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotations omitted). The Court does not inquire as to whether the record might also support the Plaintiff's claims, but only whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. See Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013) (“[W]hether there is substantial evidence supporting [the Plaintiff's] view is not the question here; we must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision”) (emphasis in original). Thus, “[e]ven where the administrative record may also adequately support contrary findings on particular issues, the ALJ's factual findings ‘must be given conclusive effect' so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.” Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982)). Once an ALJ finds facts, the Court can reject those facts “only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.” Brault v. Social Sec. Admin., 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ's Decision

         At step one, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed onset date, March 22, 2010 through December 31, 2013, the date last insured. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had severe impairments, specifically, mild degenerative disc disease, bilateral knee degenerative joint disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and a mood disorder. At step three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff did not establish an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in the regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart 4, Appendix 1. At step four, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had an RFC to perform a range of light work. The ALJ placed limitations on this determination, however, finding that the Plaintiff was limited to simple routine tasks; should not work with the general public; and, while he was able to work with others, the Plaintiff should not do work that required frequent or extensive collaboration. In light of these finds, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ, crediting the testimony of the vocational expert, determined that were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Plaintiff was not under a disability during the relevant period, from March 22, 2010, through December 31, 2013, the date last insured.


         At issue in this appeal are the Commissioner's determinations at step four and step five of the sequential analysis. The Plaintiff raises five arguments. First, he asserts that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule by giving insufficient weight to opinions of the Plaintiff's treatment providers and gave too much weight to the State Agency medical consultants. Second, the Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record. His third argument is that the ALJ did not give adequate weight to the VA disability rating. Fourth, the Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's evaluation of the Plaintiff's pain was insufficient. Finally, the Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's reliance, at step five, on the testimony of vocational expert Jeffrey Joy. The Commissioner, in response, disagrees with each of these assertions and avers that the ALJ's findings are well supported by substantial evidence.

         The Court has reviewed the parties' submissions, the decision of the ALJ, the transcript of the proceedings, and the administrative record. The parties have filed a stipulation of facts, submitted as part of the Plaintiff's brief, which the Court incorporates herein. Additional references to the record will be made as necessary.

         The Medical Opinions and Treatment Records

         Pursuant to the so-called “treating physician rule, ” the Commissioner is to give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion when 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.” 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2); see also Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 307 (2d Cir. 2009). Where the opinion is contradicted by other substantial evidence in the record, the ALJ is entitled to use discretion in weighing the medical evidence as a whole. See Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 587 (2d Cir. 2002). In resolving the amount of weight to give a medical opinion, the ALJ should consider the examining relationship; the treatment relationship, the length of the treatment relationship, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; the evidence supporting the medical opinion; consistency with the record; and specialization of the medical source. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527 and 416.927. The ALJ must provide a reason for any rejection of a treating source opinion. See Schisler v. Sullivan, 3 F.3d 563, 568 (2d Cir. 1993).

         Dr. Schartel

         Prior to the hearing, the Plaintiff regularly saw Dr. Schartel from August 2012 to May 2015. On April 22, 2013, Dr. Schartel opined that the Plaintiff had “significant interpersonal problems that would interfere [with] his ability to get along [with] peers [and] supervisors.” She opined that he would have an obvious or serious problem performing work activity on a sustained basis”; an “obvious problem performing basic work activities at a reasonable pace/finishing on time”; and “a serious problem using appropriate coping skills to meet ordinary demands of a work environment.” She noted that the Plaintiff's “symptoms wax and wane; when in a mood episode, he has significant problems with selfcare and utilizing healthy coping skills.” The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Schartel's opinions regarding the Plaintiff's limitations. The Plaintiff argues that, in doing so, the ALJ arbitrarily substituted his own judgment for that of the Plaintiff's treating physician. He argues ...

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