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Cournoyer v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 27, 2019

CHRISTOPHER PAUL COURNOYER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION

          ALVIN W. THOMPSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Christopher Paul Cournoyer appeals the Commissioner’s final decision denying the plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The plaintiff filed a motion for reversal or remand, contending that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to provide good reason for assigning partial weight to the opinions of Drs. John Haney and Paige Westerfield as to concentration, persistence, pace and social functioning because both opinions are “entirely consistent with the record”. Pl.’s Mem. to Reverse (“ECF No. 19-1”) at 3, 4, 6, 8 of 10. The plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred (1) by finding that the plaintiff had the ability to perform activities of daily living[1], (2) by mischaracterizing the evidence as to hobbies[2], (3) by giving partial weight to every psychiatric opinion[3], (4) by using the same reasoning for different mental conditions to support the weight given[4], and (5) by providing the vocational expert with an incomplete hypothetical[5]. See ECF No. 19-1 at 4-9 of 10.

         The defendant filed a motion for an order affirming the ALJ’s decision, maintaining (1) that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate any significant error of fact or law, (2) that “the ALJ was entitled to rely on the record as a whole”, (3) that the ALJ “thoroughly explained his reasoning” for assigning partial weight to the opinions of Drs. Haney and Westerfield, and (4) that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. Def.’s Mot./Mem. to Affirm (“ECF No. 21”) at 5, 6, 9-12 of 12.

         For the reasons set forth below, the court concludes that the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and his findings are supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, 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 . . . 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)) (emphasis added). 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 (emphasis added). 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) (emphasis added).

         II. Discussion

         Medical opinions from acceptable medical sources are entitled to “controlling weight” if “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and “not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record”. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). When these opinions are either not well-supported or are inconsistent with other substantial evidence, the ALJ must, inter alia, give good reasons for the weight given. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c); Social Security Ruling 96-2p (Rescinded by Federal Register Notice Vol. 82, No. 57, page 15263 effective March 27, 2017, after February 10, 2015, the filing date of the plaintiff’s application). The ALJ’s explanation should be supported by the evidence and be specific enough to make clear to the claimant and any subsequent reviewers the reasons and the weight given.[6] See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(f)(2); Social Security Ruling 96-2p (Rescinded by Federal Register Notice Vol. 82, No. 57, page 15263 effective March 27, 2017, after February 10, 2015, the filing date of the plaintiff’s application).

The psychiatric review technique described in 20 CFR 404.1520a and 416.920a and summarized on the Psychiatric Review Technique Form (PRTF) requires adjudicators to assess an individual's limitations and restrictions from a mental impairment(s) in categories identified in the "paragraph B" and "paragraph C" criteria of the adult mental disorders listings. The adjudicator must remember that the limitations identified in the "paragraph B" and "paragraph C" criteria are not an RFC assessment but are used to rate the severity of mental impairment(s) at steps 2 and 3 of the sequential evaluation process. The mental RFC assessment used at steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process requires a more detailed assessment by itemizing various functions contained in the broad categories found in paragraphs B and C of the adult mental disorders listings. . . .

         Social Security Ruling 96-8p (emphasis added).

         An “RFC does not represent the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” Social Security Ruling 96-8p (emphasis added).

RFC must not be expressed in terms of the lowest exertional level (e.g., “sedentary” or “light” when the individual can perform “medium” work) at which the medical vocational rules would still direct a finding of “not disabled.” This would concede lesser functional abilities than the individual actually possesses and would not reflect the most he or she can do based on the evidence in the case record, as directed by the regulations.

         Social Security Ruling 96-8p

         The ALJ’s Decision demonstrates his understanding of the paragraph B and C criteria:

To satisfy the "paragraph B" criteria, the mental impairments must result in at least one extreme or two marked limitations in a broad area of functioning which are: understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; or adapting or managing themselves. A marked limitation means functioning in this area independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis is seriously limited. An extreme limitation is the inability to function independently, appropriately or effectively, and on a sustained basis.
In understanding, remembering, or applying information, the claimant had moderate limitation. The claimant reported experiencing memory problems during the relevant period (Exhibit 7F-9F). Additionally, cognitive testing revealed the claimant had variable working memory abilities with deficient mental processing in the impaired-to-borderline range (Exhibit 8F). However, cognitive testing also showed the claimant had average language skills and that his memory performance was grossly intact (Exhibit 8F at 4). Further, the record showed that the claimant had several higher education degrees, which strongly suggests that he has retained some significant understanding abilities (Exhibit 5F at 2). Additionally, the claimant also reported that he could repair automobiles and small engines during the relevant period, which strongly suggests that he has retained significant understanding and concentration-related abilities despite his complaints (Exhibit 3E at 5). Overall, the record showed that the claimant had only a moderate limitation in his ability to understand, remember, and apply information.
In interacting with others, the claimant had moderate limitation. The claimant told providers that he often felt angry and reported that he had been fired from past jobs due to difficulty getting along with others, including his supervisors (Exhibit 6F at 7; 8F; 11F; 13F; 15F). Mental status examinations from the relevant period showed the claimant appeared anxious, sad, and talkative with a blunted affect, intermittent paraphasic errors when speaking (Exhibit 8F; 11F). However, a neuropsychological consultative examination revealed the claimant appeared engaged and cooperative during that visit (Exhibit 8F). Additionally, treatment records showed that the claimant appeared cooperative during meetings with providers (Exhibit 7F). Treatment records also showed he often appeared pleasant (Exhibit 9F; 18F at 2). Moreover, the claimant maintained a relationship with his wife during the relevant period, which also suggests that he has retained a significant ability to get along with others (Exhibit 13F; 14F). Moreover, the claimant self-reported that he goes shopping and attends a sporting event with a family member every year, which strongly suggests that he has retained some significant ability to tolerate crowds and strangers (Exhibit 3E). Overall, the record showed that the claimant had only a moderate limitation in his ability to interact with others.
With regard to concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace, the claimant had moderate limitation. The claimant complained of experiencing some attention problems during the relevant period (Exhibit 7F-9F). Cognitive testing revealed the claimant had variable attention abilities with deficient mental processing in the impaired-to-borderline range (Exhibit 8F). However, mental status examinations from the relevant period also showed the claimant displayed an intact ability to calculate and intact concentration during visits with providers (Exhibit 11F). Examinations performed by his providers also showed normal concentration and attention as well (Exhibit 7F; 14F). Moreover, the claimant self-reported that he can repair small engines and follow written instructions (Exhibit 3E). Further, the claimant admitted to providers that he wrote for enjoyment and that he completed adult coloring books, which suggests that he has retained significant concentration abilities (Exhibit 14F at 10). Similarly, the claimant also noted at the time of his application that he could search for jobs, check the newspaper for employment ads, run errands, and complete some chores (Exhibit 3E). Overall, the record showed that the claimant had only a moderate limitation in his ability to concentrate, persist, and maintain pace.
As for adapting or managing oneself, the claimant had moderate limitation. The claimant complained of some suicidal ideation during the relevant period, and he reported that he had trouble handling stress and changes in routine (Exhibit 3E; 11F; 13F). Additionally, the claimant reported that he had difficulty performing activities of daily living due to poor motivation at times (Exhibit 3E). However, a neuropsychological evaluation reported that the claimant could maintain independence in all activities of daily living (Exhibit 8F at 4). Additionally, treatment records showed that the claimant appeared well-groomed during meetings with providers and he told providers that he could independently complete his activities of daily living (Exhibit 7F; 11F at 18). The claimant also self-reported that he could complete household chores and yard work, and that he could prepare his own meals (Exhibit 3E). Overall, the record showed that the claimant had only a moderate limitation in his ability to adapt or manage himself Because the claimant's mental impairments do not cause at least two "marked" limitations or one "extreme" limitation, the "paragraph B" criteria are not satisfied.
The undersigned has also considered whether the "paragraph C" criteria are satisfied. In this case, the evidence fails to establish the presence of the "paragraph C" criteria. The record does not establish that the claimant has only marginal adjustment, that is, a minimal capacity to adapt to changes in the claimant's environment or to demands that are not already part of the claimant's daily life. An neuropsychological examination reported the claimant maintained independence in all activities of daily living during the relevant period, and treatment records did not document any significant decline in functioning following his loss of work (See Exhibit 1F- 7F; 8F at 4; 9F-18F). Similarly, after he lost his prior employment, the claimant noted that he could search for jobs, check the newspaper for employment ads, run errands, and complete some chores, which suggests that he retained significant adaptive functioning during periods of change (Exhibit 3E). This ...

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