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Coombs v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2019

DAVID V. COOMBS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting COMMISSIONER OF Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff David V. Coombs appeals the Commissioner's final decision denying the plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The plaintiff filed a motion for reversal or remand, contending that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred (1) by giving great weight to the opinions of Nurse Practitioner Lisa DeCarlo; (2) by failing to consider Dr. Russell Phillips's agency consultant opinions and reconciling them with the inconsistencies in Nurse Practitioner DeCarlo's opinions; (3)by giving great weight to portions of the state agency assessments of Carl Bancoff, MD, Susan Gonzalez, Lois Wurzel, MD, and Erika Cieslak; (4) by not supporting the RFC non-exertional findings with substantial evidence; and (5) by finding that the plaintiff could frequently finger and handle. Pl.'s Mem. to Reverse (“ECF No. 22-1”) at 4-12.

         The Commissioner filed a motion for an order affirming the Commissioner's decision, maintaining that the plaintiff “failed to demonstrate any significant error of fact or law” and that “the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Def.'s Mot. to Affirm (“ECF No. 23”) at 9.

         For the reasons set forth below, the court concludes that any error in the application of the legal standard was harmless and that the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Thus, the Commissioner's final decision is being affirmed.

         I. Legal Standard

         “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)). Substantial evidence must be “more than a mere scintilla or touch of proof here and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258. Absent legal error, this court may not set aside the decision of the Commissioner if it is supported by substantial evidence. See Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982); 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 . . . .”). Thus, 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. See Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982).

         II. Discussion

         A. Nurse Practitioner DeCarlo's Medical Source Statement

         The plaintiff contends that “the ALJ erred in giving great weight” to Nurse Practitioner DeCarlo's opinions” as reflected in the medical impairment questionnaire dated March 20, 2015, because she was “not an acceptable medical source, does not practice in the field of behavioral health, had no behavioral health treatment relationship with the plaintiff, . . . did not begin primary care treatment of the plaintiff until more than two years after the date last insured” and her “findings . . . are inconsistent with the records for contemporaneous behavioral health treatment that the plaintiff was receiving from UCFS in 2015, which records reflect little to no improvement in the plaintiff's chronic symptoms related to anxiety and depression (Tr. 1248-1300).” ECF No. 22-1 at 4-5.

         The defendant maintains that “[t]he ALJ reasonably and correctly assigned ‘great weight' to the medical assessment from treating Nurse Practitioner DeCarlo”. ECF No. 23 at 4.

         On this issue, the Social Security Administration has noted the following:

In addition to evidence from “acceptable medical sources, ” we may use evidence from “other sources” . . . to show the severity of the individual's impairment(s) and how it affects the individual's ability to function. These sources include, but are not limited to . . . [m]edical sources who are not “acceptable medical sources, ” such as nurse practitioners . . . . [T]he Act requires us to consider all of the available evidence in the individual's case record in every case. . . . In addition, when an adjudicator determines that an ...

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