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Sudac v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 24, 2019

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




         Plaintiff David Paul Sudac (“Sudac”) brings this appeal under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code from the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), which denied his application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income. See Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. No. 1). Sudac filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. No. 25), seeking vacatur and reversal of the Decision rendered by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Martha Bower, which affirmed the Commissioner's denial. See Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (“Mot. to Reverse”) (Doc. No. 17). The Commissioner moves for an order affirming the ALJ's Decision. See Mot. for Order Affirming the Decision of the Comm'r (“Mot. to Affirm”) (Doc. No. 18).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is granted and the Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner is denied.


         Sudac applied for disability income benefits on December 11, 2014, and applied for supplemental security income benefits December 23, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of March 23, 2013. See R. at 19. The Commissioner denied Sudac's application initially on April 20, 2015, and upon reconsideration on October 5, 2015. Id. Sudac requested a hearing with an ALJ, which was held by video before ALJ Bower on December 30, 2016. Id.

         On February 24, 2017, ALJ Bower issued an unfavorable decision for Sudac, affirming the Commissioner's denial and finding that Sudac was not disabled. See id. at 35. Specifically, the ALJ found that Sudac's impairments did not meet or equal any listing, see id. at 25, and that with his level of residual functional capacity (“RFC”), there were jobs in the national economy that he could perform, see id. at 34-35. The Appeals Council denied Sudac's request for review on January 9, 2018. Id. at 1. Following that denial, ALJ Bower's February 24, 2017 Decision became a final decision reviewable by this court. See id. at 2. Sudac filed this appeal on March 8, 2018. See Complaint (Doc. No. 1).

         III. FACTS

         While the parties did not file a joint stipulation of facts, many of the facts are undisputed. Compare Summary of Facts in Support of Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. No. 25-2) (“Sudac SOF”) with Response to Plaintiff's Statement of Facts (Doc. No. 27-2) (“Comm'r SOF”). The court adopts the parties' Statements of Fact to the extent the facts are agreed upon, and it will therefore only briefly describe the facts relevant to this Ruling.

         Sudac was born on August 17, 1990, and was 26 years old at the time of his hearing on December 30, 2016. See R. at 211.[1] In January 2009, Sudac was brought to an emergency room after throwing objects in his house and driving erratically. Sudac SOF ¶ 14.[2] Sudac reported becoming “very angry” after receiving a negative result from a colonoscopy, related to chronic abdominal pain and “bowel disregulation” over the previous year. Id. ¶ 15. Sudac also reported feelings of depression associated with his chronic abdominal problems. Id. ¶ 16.

         Beginning on March 26, 2013, Sudac was seen at the Branford Counseling Center for reports of severe anxiety and panic attacks. Id. ¶¶ 17-19. Sudac reported he had been prescribed a medication to assist with his anxiety but had stopped taking the medicine due to sexual side-effects. Id. ¶ 20. At various times during his treatment, Sudac reported regular marijuana use as a form of self-medication. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 26, 37. Dr. Tracy Robinson, Psy.D evaluated Sudac, and reported that he exhibited “obsessional worrying, ” admitted to having suicidal thoughts (without intent or plan), and that Sudac reported a desire to be free of his physical IBS symptoms and to “get back to normal” emotionally. Id. ¶¶ 23-25. Dr. Robinson diagnosed Sudac with major depressive disorder, cannabis dependence, OCD, and IBS. Id. ¶ 27.

         On July 4, 2013, Sudac was admitted to Natchaug Hospital, where he reported depression, severe IBS with diarrhea, and related anxiety and obsessive behavior. Id. ¶¶ 29-30. Sudac stated that he was fearful of using public restrooms and was transferred to Silver Hill Hospital after four days due to his inability to use the restroom at Natchaug Hospital. Id. ¶¶ 38-39.

         Sudac was admitted to Silver Hill Hospital on July 8, 2013. See Sudac SOF ¶ 39; Comm'r SOF ¶ 40.[3] Sudac reiterated many of the same complaints, including anxiety, IBS, inability to urinate in public places, depression, and suicidal ideation. Id. ¶¶ 41-44. When discharged from Silver Hill Hospital, Sudac was still anxious but “much less irritable, ” his condition was stable, and his prognosis was good. Comm'r SOF ¶ 46.

         Sudac attended an intensive outpatient treatment program at Hartford Healthcare from February 4, 2014 to April 14, 2014. Sudac SOF ¶ 47. He was thereafter treated at the Anxiety Disorders Center of the Harford Hospital, Institute of Living. Id. ¶ 52. Sudac again reported anxiety, obsessive behavior, compulsions, and a fear of public urination. Id. ¶¶ 53-59. Starting in June 2014 and continuing through January 2016, Sudac was treated by Dr. Hannan at the Anxiety Disorders Center. Id. ¶¶ 63, 76. As part of his treatment, Sudac was encouraged to engage in exposure exercises, where he would attempt to travel to and use public restrooms. Id. ¶ 65. These exercises were successful to the extent that Sudac was able to use public restrooms to some degree, though some progress was lost towards the end of treatment. Comm'r SOF ¶ 76.

         From at least February 2013 onwards, Sudac reported difficulty evacuating his bowels. Sudac SOF ¶ 80. He reported that he spent long periods, especially in the morning, attempting to empty his bowels, feeling only partial evacuation, and needing to return to a restroom again shortly thereafter. Id. ¶ 86. Colonoscopies revealed internal and external hemorrhoids, which was treated through surgical procedures. Id. ¶ 84. The treating gastroenterologist, Dr. Aversa, diagnosed an “obvious obstructed defecation syndrome.” Id. ¶ 87. Sudac was also treated by Dr. Bogardus, who noted that Sudac's primary complaint was related to variable bowel movements. Id. ¶ 95. Sudac did not exhibit acute pain, though he did report gassiness and bloating; Dr. Bogardus noted that Sudac's symptoms were consistent with IBS. Id. ¶¶ 95-98.

         State agency psychological consultants Dr. Kelly Rogers and Dr. Jon Perlman concluded, based on a Psychiatric Review Technique, that Sudac had mild restrictions of daily activities and moderate limitations in social functioning, but that his conditions did not preclude work. Comm'r SOF at 5, 6. Based on a review of records, Dr. Quinlan, a state agency medical consultant, concluded that Sudac suffered from IBS, paruresis, and anxiety disorder, but that the IBS and paruresis were not severe. Id. at 6. Dr. Gurcharan Singh, a state agency medical consultant, affirmed Dr. Quinlan's conclusions. Id. at 6.


         Under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code, it is not a function of the district court to review de novo the ALJ's decision as to whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Instead, the court may only set aside an ALJ's determination as to social security disability if the decision “is based upon legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). Substantial evidence requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” but is a “very deferential standard of review.” Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 447-48 (2d Cir. 2012). It requires “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 448. If the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, those findings are conclusive, and the court will not substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2016); see also Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998).

         V. DISCUSSION

         Sudac argues that ALJ Bower's decision should be reversed or remanded for three reasons. First, he argues that ALJ Bower erred in concluding that Sudac's irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), obsessive compulsive disorder (“OCD”), and paruresis (commonly known as “shy bladder”) did not constitute severe conditions within the meaning of the applicable regulations. See Sudac Mem. in Supp. (Doc. No. 25-1) at 10. Second, Sudac argues that the ALJ committed legal error in her application of the treating physician rule as to all of the opinions provided by ...

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