Worthy v. Colvin
ORDER denying 12 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; granting 14 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The Clerk shall enter judgment and close this case. Signed by Judge Stefan R. Underhill on 3/27/2017. (Buttrick, A.)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT
ERROLL D. WORTHY,
No. 3:15-cv-1762 (SRU)
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
On December 1, 2015, the plaintiff, Erroll Worthy, filed a complaint seeking review of
the Social Security Commissioner’s decision to deny his application for Disability Insurance
Benefits. (doc. 1) The parties have subsequently filed cross-motions seeking to overturn and
affirm the Commissioner’s decisions respectively. (docs. 12 and 14) On July 21, 2016, I held a
hearing on those motions.
For the following reasons, I deny Worthy’s motion for a remand and grant the
Commissioner’s motion to affirm.
Standard of Review
A district court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited. Yancey v. Apfel, 145
F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). It is not the court’s function to determine de novo whether the
claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Rather, the court
During the pendency of this case, Nancy A. Berryhill replaced Carolyn W. Colvin as the Acting Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration. Pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Berryhill is thus
automatically substituted for Colvin in this case.
must review the record to determine first whether the correct legal standard was applied and then
whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner. 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 . . . .”); see Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177,
181 (2d Cir. 1998); Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998).
When determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence, the court must consider the entire record, examining the evidence from both sides.
Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence need not compel the
Commissioner’s decision; rather substantial evidence need only be evidence that “a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion” being challenged. Veino v. Barnhart,
312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “Even 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) (internal quotation marks
and citation omitted).
The parties have filed a joint stipulation of the facts and procedural history in this case.
Joint Stipulation, (doc. 13-1). The pertinent portions are summarized below.
A. Factual Background
Worthy is a high school graduate born in 1966. His only past relevant work was as a trash
collector. Worthy asserts that he has been disabled since September 2, 2006, see Compl. at ¶ 4;
however, the joint medical history does not identify any specific diagnoses or injuries before
May 2012, apparently because a previous negative ALJ decision prohibits him from recovering
through that date. The Joint Stipulation suggests that the root cause of Worthy’s disabilities was
a work-related injury.
In February 2012, before the period described by the joint stipulation, Worthy was
admitted to a rehabilitation program for mood disorder and cannabis dependence, but was
discharged after one session for non-compliance. (R. at 433–45)
In May 2012, Worthy complained of an inability to sleep, but examination and follow-up
studies of his spinal nerves found no irregularities. In June 2012, he presented with chronic neck
pains and spasms, and was diagnosed with chronic pain, depression and anxiety, and
hypertension. Worthy was provided with a range of pain medications. He also reported that he
had been working out twice weekly, walking, and staying active. (R. at 452) In September 2012,
Worthy presented with an abnormally fast heart rate, and was referred for additional studies and
given refills on his pain medications. On October 3, 2012, he reported that his pain was “under
control” on the medications. It appears that Worthy continued to complain about pain in his neck
and back, for which his pain medications were continually refilled through the date of the ALJ
In October 2013, Worthy was seen for depression in addition to his pain complaints. In
November 2013, Worthy underwent a lumbar spine MRI, which revealed compression of various
spinal nerves and a discomfort-causing deterioration of the facet joints in the spine. In January
2014, Worthy also reported that he had been doing construction work from June through August
of 2013. (R. at 645) He stated, however, that engaging in that work had worsened his pain
symptoms. Id. In addition to his chronic pain, he was also diagnosed with a kidney disease at that
The kidney disease is not one of Worthy’s claimed disabilities.
1. Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s Report
On August 2, 2013, Dr. Liese Franklin-Zitzkat, the Social Security Administration’s
Examining Psychologist, examined Worthy. (R. at 601–605) She diagnosed a major depressive
disorder and an anxiety disorder. She observed that Worthy had “exhibited only mild difficulty”
with a task assessing short-term memory, but based on his self-reporting, she determined that he
would have “moderate to marked difficulty” remembering instructions and maintaining
concentration at work or withstanding the stress of an average work day. She observed that those
conditions might improve if Worthy returned to work.
There appear to be no other evaluations of Worthy’s concentration and memory based on
in-person examination in the record.
2. Dr. Jonas’ Report
On February 26, 2014, Dr. Elizabeth Jonas completed a Spinal Impairment Questionnaire
on Worthy. (R. at 673–85)3 She indicated that she had been treating Worthy since before March
27, 2013, which is borne out by records showing her treatment in May 2012, (R. at 459–60), and
that she had seen him approximately every four months. She diagnosed “severe lumbar and
cervical degenerative disk disease” and “chronic pain syndrome,” and observed that Worthy’s
prognosis was “poor.” She stated that her conclusions were based on MRIs in November 2013
and May 2010. On the basis of those diagnoses, Dr. Jonas indicated that Worthy could sit for
only one hour per eight-hour workday, and could stand between zero and one hours. She
indicated that he could never lift or carry any weight, including in the zero-to-five pound range,
that he could not tolerate even “low stress” work, and that he would need to take 15–20 minute
breaks every half hour and take time off more than three times per month. She did not discuss
The second copy of the report, (R. at 679–85), includes additional pages of responses, (R. at 683–84), and Dr.
how Worthy’s previous self-reported periods of work and exercise comported with those
conclusions, nor did she discuss Worthy’s assertion to an examining physician in October 2013
that he could lift or carry no more than ten to fifteen pounds. (R. at 607) She also did not indicate
that Worthy suffered from any psychological limitations to work.
Following the submission of her report, on September 10, 2014, Jonas indicated in a
treatment note that Worthy reported that he had been “[m]oving and working at odd jobs a lot.”
(R. at 770) Jonas was not asked to update or reconcile her opinion with that information.
3. Dr. Guarnaccia’s Report
On September 17, 2013, Dr. Joseph Guarnaccia examined Worthy at the behest of the
Social Security Administration. (R. at 607–610) Worthy reported experiencing pain constantly in
his lower back, (R. at 607), and using a cane “occasionally,” (R. at 608). On the basis of his
examination, Dr. Guarnaccia diagnosed Worthy with chronic lower back pain, migraine
headaches, and unexplained numbness of the left arm. (R. at 610) He opined that Mr. Worthy
would not be able to perform work activities that require “extending walking, standing, bending,
lifting, or carrying.” Id.
4. Non-Examining Physicians
Worthy’s file was also reviewed by several non-examining physicians at the request of
the State Agency. With respect to Worthy’s physical limitations, both Dr. Virginia Rittner, who
reviewed the file on September 18, 2013 before Dr. Jonas’ report, and Dr. Kurshid Khan, who
reviewed the file on February 3, 2014 after the Jonas report, determined that Worthy had the
following exertional limitations: lifting twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently;
sitting and standing for six hours each in an eight-hour workday; and occasionally performing
postural activities, such as stooping, kneeling, and crouching. See (R. at 155–57, 172–73).
With respect to Worthy’s mental limitations, Dr. Warren Lieb, who reviewed the file on
August 16, 2013 and after Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s report,4 noted that Worthy’s claimed problems
with memory were not supported in the record, but observed that he would have some
“moderate” limitations in his ability to carry out detailed instructions, maintain concentration for
a long period of time, or interact appropriately with the general public. (R. at 157–58) Dr. Adrian
Brown, who reviewed the file on February 7, 2014, came to similar conclusions. (R. at 188–90)
B. Procedural History
Worthy filed an application for Social Security disability benefits on June 11, 2013,
claiming a disability onset date of September 2, 2006, which date was later amended to June 16,
2012. After his initial application and request for reconsideration were denied, Worthy received a
hearing before Administrative Law Judge Matthew Kuperstein (the “ALJ”) on March 2, 2015.
(R. at 99–131)
On May 29, 2015, the ALJ found that Worthy did not qualify for benefits. (R. at 60–75)
His analysis followed the five-step evaluation process provided in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and
416.920(a). At Step One, the ALJ found that Worthy had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity during the relevant period. (R. at 63) At Step Two, he determined that Worthy had the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and lumbar spine;
depression; anxiety; and substance addiction disorder. Id. At Step Three, he determined that
Worthy did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled one of
the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 65–67)
I note that the joint stipulation of facts indicates that Dr. Lieb “reviewed files through March 2, 2012.” JS at 9.
That does not accord with either end point of the review – the “Evidence of Record” portion of the report in which
Dr. Lieb’s opinion is included lists Dr. Franklin-Ziztkat’s August 6, 2013 report as well as sources going back to
March of 2011. (R. at 146–49)
The ALJ determined that Worthy had the residual functional capacity to perform light
work limited to only occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling
and to work that requires frequent, as opposed to constant, standing and/or walking and frequent,
as opposed to constant, handing, fingering, and feeling bilaterally with the upper extremities. (R.
at 67) Mentally, he determined that Worthy was limited to work that involves carrying out
simple, repetitive tasks and to work with little collaboration with others and no contact with the
general public. Id. In order to come to that determination, the ALJ found that Worthy’s medically
determinable impairments could have caused the symptoms about which he complained, but
found his testimony about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms to be
“not entirely credible.” (R. at 68)
The ALJ’s skepticism of Worthy’s physical limitations was based on, inter alia, evidence
in the record that Worthy had been able to work out, walk, and perform the activities of daily
living without severe physical dysfunction, inconsistent testimony about his need to walk with a
cane, and Dr. Jonas’ observation in 2012 that Worthy had a normal gait and motor strength. (R.
at 68–69) The ALJ also observed that the portions of Dr. Jonas’ report describing Worthy’s
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) appeared to rely heavily on his subjective reports and,
without explanation, described limitations more severe than those observed in her own treatment
notes and inconsistent with his self-reports to other physicians. (R. at 69–70, 72)
The ALJ also discounted Worthy’s allegations regarding his mental limitations. (R. at 68)
The ALJ stated incorrectly that Worthy had “testified to” limitations based on depression and
anxiety, when Worthy had, in fact, made no statements about his mental health whatsoever
during the hearing. Id. The ALJ also observed that Worthy had failed to continue with the
rehabilitation program in 2012. (R. at 70) He discounted the portion of Dr. Zitzkat’s report
regarding Worthy’s limited memory and concentration, observing that it was contradicted by
Worthy’s ability to perform the activities of everyday life and by Dr. Jonas’ observation that
Worthy had a “normal affect.” (R. at 71–72, 73) The ALJ emphasized Worthy’s reported ability
to handle his own finances, make simple meals, and to live alone with only limited support, as
well as the fact that Worthy had reported doing some work after his onset date. (R. at 71–72) By
contrast, the ALJ gave great weight to the state agency physician and psychologist assessments
because they were “consistent with the record as a whole.” (R. at 73)
At Step Four, the ALJ found that Worthy could not perform his past relevant work. (R. at
73) Finally, at Step Five, on the basis of the testimony of a Vocational Expert, the ALJ found
that, taking Worthy’s age, education, work experience, and RFC into account, there were jobs in
significant numbers in the national economy that Worthy could perform, including mail sorter,
order caller, and retail marker. (R. at 74–75)
Worthy requested review of the ALJ’s decision on June 19, 2015, and the Appeals
Council denied that request on October 2, 2015.
Worthy challenges the ALJ’s RFC determination as not supported by substantial
evidence on four grounds: (1) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to Dr. Jonas’ report under the
“treating physician” rule; (2) the ALJ gave too much weight to a non-examining state agency
physician; (3) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to Dr. Franklin-Zizkat’s report as compared
to the report of a non-examining psychologist; and (4) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate
A. Dr. Jonas’ Report
Worthy asserts that the ALJ erred when he gave “little weight” to Dr. Jonas’ impairment
questionnaire because the “treating physician” rule required greater deference to Dr. Jonas’
opinion as a treating source. Pl.’s Br. at 1–2 (quoting R. at 72).
Under the “treating physician rule,” a treating physician’s opinion on the issues of the
nature and severity of a claimant’s impairments is given “controlling weight” if the opinion is
well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the case record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2),
416.927(c)(2); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2003). The
opinion of a treating source will not be afforded controlling weight, however, where the treating
physician “issued opinions that are not consistent with other substantial evidence in the record,
such as the opinions of other medical experts.” Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 32 (2d Cir.
2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). “[T]he less consistent th[e] opinion is with
the record as a whole, the less weight it will be given.” Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir.
In circumstances where the treating physician’s opinion is not entitled to receive
“controlling” weight, the regulations require the ALJ to consider several factors to determine
how much weight the physician’s opinion should receive. Halloran, 362 F.3d at 32. Those
factors include: “(i) the frequency of examination and the length, nature and extent of the
treatment relationship; (ii) the evidence in support of the treating physician’s opinion; (iii) the
consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; (iv) whether the opinion is from a
specialist; and (v) other factors brought to the Social Security Administration's attention that tend
to support or contradict the opinion.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)–(6), 416.927(c)(2)–(6).
The ALJ must set forth his or her reasons for the weight assigned to a treating physician’s
opinion in the notice of determination. Id. Failure to provide sufficient reasons for not crediting
the opinion of a claimant’s treating physician is a ground for remand. Sanders v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 506 F. App’x 74, 77 (2d Cir. 2012); Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 129 (2d Cir. 2008);
Snell, 177 F.3d at 133.
Dr. Jonas was a treating physician to whom the rule should apply. The ALJ, however,
gave her report little weight because it was inconsistent with other evidence in the record
indicating that Worthy had normal motor strength and a normal range of motion. (R. at 72) The
ALJ cited to an assessment by one of Dr. Jonas’ colleagues on October 28, 2013 indicating
normal muscle strength and foot dragging that “only occur[ed] after walking long distances,” (R.
at 648); an assessment by a doctor treating Worthy for liver disease on March 26, 2014
indicating a “normal range of motion,” (R. at 688); and a progress note from a Registered Nurse
on October 24, 2014 indicating that Worthy reported exercising regularly, (R. at 730). The ALJ
also observed that Dr. Jonas did not explain her findings or provide examples of objective
findings that would support the extent of the limitations she reported, leading him to believe that
the report was overly reliant on Worthy’s subjective complaints. (R. at 72)
Worthy argues that Dr. Jonas’ citations to two MRIs and to a list of Worthy’s diagnoses
are sufficient to support her report. Pl.’s Br. at 2–3. But those references only establish that
Worthy had some limitations, which the ALJ recognized; they are not responsive to the ALJ’s
concern, which is that Dr. Jonas failed to support the extent of those limitations. Worthy does not
identify any objective medical evidence in the record supporting Dr. Jonas’ contention that
Worthy, for instance, could not sit or stand for more than one hour per day, or that he could not
lift or carry any weight at all. He argues instead that the inconsistent evidence is not, in fact,
inconsistent because those assessments were not made in the context of doing those activities
during the workday. Worthy is correct that the ALJ must take that context into account, see
Scandura v. Astrue, 2009 WL 648611, at *9 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 10, 2009); however, he has failed to
point to any evidence in the record here that makes it unreasonable for the ALJ to extrapolate—
from an ability to walk, exercise, and do odd jobs in general—an ability to at least occasionally
do those same things during the working day.
Moreover, as the ALJ observed when discussing the non-examining physicians’ reports,
the record before Dr. Jonas when she was writing her 2014 report indicated that Worthy had
reported being able to exercise regularly in June of 2012, (R. at 452), and had engaged in
construction work from June through August of 2013, (R. at 645). After the report was
submitted, Dr. Jonas herself indicated the Worthy had reported working at odd jobs “a lot” in
September of 2014 without a significant deterioration in his condition. (R. at 770)
At the hearing on these motions, Worthy argued that his ability to do “odd jobs” for brief
and sporadic periods did not necessarily mean that he has the ability to work an eight-hour day,
and further noted that he reported doing construction work to his doctor precisely because that
effort had exacerbated his pain. See (R. at 645). Those arguments misconstrue both the question
at hand and the standard of review. At this step of the determination, the ALJ was not deciding
whether Worthy had the ability to safely withstand an eight-hour day in construction but rather
the weight to which Dr. Jonas’ 2014 report was entitled in light of the record as a whole. And the
substantial evidence standard does not require that the record compel the ALJ’s determination,
but only that it provides reasonable support. Here, it is certainly reasonable to conclude that the
ability to do construction work for any period of time or to withstand an “odd job” without injury
is inconsistent with Dr. Jonas’ opinion that Worthy would be unable to, for instance, sit or stand
for even an hour at a time or to lift any weight at all.
Accordingly, Worthy has failed to demonstrate that the ALJ’s determination regarding
Dr. Jonas’ report was not supported by substantial evidence, and his motion for a reversal on that
ground is denied.
B. Non-Examining State Agency Physician
Worthy asserts that the ALJ compounded his error in giving little weight to the 2014
Jonas report by giving “great weight” to the non-examining state agency physicians’ opinion.
Pl.’s Br. at 3–4.
The Second Circuit has recognized that “[t]he opinions of non-examining medical
personnel cannot, in themselves and in most situations, constitute substantial evidence to
override the opinion of a treating source.” Schisler v. Sullivan, 3 F.3d 563, 570 (2d Cir. 1993).
Social Security regulations, however, “permit the opinions of nonexamining sources to override
treating sources’ opinions, provided they are supported by evidence in the record.” Id. at 568
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(f) [now (e)] and 416.927(f) [now (e)]); see also Titles II & Xvi:
Consideration of Admin. Findings of Fact by State Agency Med. & Psychological Consultants &
Other Program Physicians & Psychologists at the Admin. Law Judge & Appeals Council, SSR
96-6P, 1996 WL 374180 at *3 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996) (“In appropriate circumstances, opinions
from State agency medical and psychological consultants and other program physicians and
psychologists may be entitled to greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining
Worthy’s main complaint is that the ALJ used the non-treating sources’ opinions to
override Dr. Jonas’ report, Pl.’s Br. at 3–4; however, as discussed above, Dr. Jonas’ opinion was
also inconsistent with the assessments of other treating physicians, including her own colleague,
during the course of treatment. Accordingly, because the ALJ did not solely rely on the non12
examining medical opinions to discount Dr. Jonas’ report but instead awarded those opinions
great weight after deeming them consistent with other evidence in the record, he was within the
bounds set out by the Social Security regulations and Second Circuit law.
Worthy also complains that one of the relevant opinions was made on a “significantly
underdeveloped file.” Pl.’s Br. at 4–5. He points out that the opinion did not take into account
any treatment records after November 2013, which does comprise a fair amount of the file. See,
e.g., (R. at 667–696) (exhibits wholly covering periods after November 2013); (R. at 644–66 and
697–798) (exhibits at least partially covering periods after November 2013). He points to SSR
96-6p, which states that one appropriate circumstance in which a non-treating source’s opinion
may be given greater weight than a treating source is when that opinion is “is based on a review
of a complete case record that includes a medical report from a specialist in the individual’s
particular impairment which provides more detailed and comprehensive information than what
was available to the individual’s treating source.” SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180 at *3. But SSR
96-6p does not indicate that is the only circumstance in which a non-treating source’s opinion
can be given great weight; in fact, it begins the quoted sentence with the phrase “for instance,”
indicating that there may be other possibilities. Here, the ALJ relied on his determination that the
non-treating sources’ opinion was consistent with other evidence in the file. Moreover, Worthy
has failed to point out any aspect of the opinion that could not reasonably be considered to be
consistent with the record, including portions of the record made after November 2013.
Accordingly, the ALJ did not err on this ground.
C. Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s Report
Worthy asserts that the ALJ erred by giving little weight to Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s report
where she observed that Worthy would have “moderate to marked” difficulty with his memory,
concentration, and with the stresses of a normal workday. Pl.’s Br. at 6–8 (discussing report at R.
As noted above, Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat diagnosed Worthy with a major depressive disorder
and an anxiety disorder. (R. at 604) She observed in a mental status exam that Worthy’s shortterm memory appeared to be “mildly impaired” because he had trouble completing a recall task,
and because of self-reporting of persistent forgetfulness. (R. at 603) She observed that he was
able to complete her concentration test, but noted that “based on his self-report and on what is
typical for individuals with his diagnoses,” he could have “moderate to marked difficulty”
remembering instructions, sustaining concentration, and withstanding stress in a work context.
(R. at 604)
The ALJ appears to have accepted Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s diagnoses in general, because
he included depression and anxiety in Worthy’s list of “severe impairments.” (R. at 63) He
nevertheless discounted Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s opinions regarding the extent of Worthy’s
resultant limitations in a workplace setting. In particular, he stated that Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s
report was “based on the claimant’s statements rather than objective findings or the claimant’s
longitudinal treatment history” and that her “opinion of moderate to marked difficulty with
remembering and sustaining concentration, and handling stress and the pressure of a routine
workday is inconsistent with other treating sources findings.” (R. at 73)
In order to evaluate the impact of the ALJ’s determination here, it is necessary to
understand what it means to have a “mild” “moderate” or “marked” limitation in the Social
Security context. That language refers to the Social Security Administration’s regulations
guiding how ALJs should evaluate mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(1)–(4).
Those regulations in turn point to the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpt. P, app’x
1 § 12.00 (the “Listing”), which describes in further detail how mental disorders are assessed.
The degree of limitation caused by any mental disorder to activities of daily living; social
functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace—the main areas about which Worthy
complained—are rated on the following five-point scale: none, mild, moderate, marked, and
extreme. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(4).
Other court decisions put the stakes of that scale in context. Relevant to the present case,
courts have routinely held that individuals suffering from “moderate” difficulties with memory,
concentration, and handling stress could reasonably be found to have the residual functional
capacity to perform “simple, routine and repetitive tasks.” See, e.g., Bartell v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 2014 WL 4966149, at *4 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2014); Diakogiannis v. Astrue, 975 F. Supp.
2d 299, 315 (W.D.N.Y. 2013). The ALJ here similarly found that Worthy was mentally “limited
to work that involves carrying out simple, repetitive tasks and to work that involves little to no
collaboration with others, and not requiring contact with the general public.” (R. at 67) Thus, the
ALJ’s RFC would not appear to change even if I determined that he had erred and the evidence
unquestionably showed that Worthy suffered from “moderate” limitations in those areas. And
because courts in the Second Circuit have consistently declined to remand if the plaintiff cannot
show how correcting the ALJ’s legal errors will reasonably result in a different outcome, see,
e.g., Zabala v. Astrue, 595 F.3d 402, 410 (2d Cir. 2010); Larkin v. Astrue, 2013 WL 4647229, at
*4 (D. Conn. Aug. 29, 2013); Sherman v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2015 WL 5838454, at *5
(N.D.N.Y. Oct. 7, 2015) (collecting cases), there is accordingly no reason for me to investigate
further whether the ALJ erred in declining to give substantial weight to Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s
opinion that Worthy’s functions might be “moderately” impaired.
By contrast, sedentary plaintiffs with “marked” limitations on social functioning,
concentration, and persistence have been found wholly unable to do even simple, low-skilled
work. See, e.g., Mateo v. Colvin, 2016 WL 1255724, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 28, 2016); Ramos v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2015 WL 708546, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 4, 2015). Accordingly, if I
determine that the ALJ erred here by unreasonably discounting Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s opinion
that Worthy had “marked” mental limitations, the case should be remanded to determine whether
adequate jobs exist in the market that could comport with Worthy’s corrected RFC assessment.
The Social Security regulations provide a fairly loose definition of what a “marked”
limitation is, describing the designation in terms of residual functional capacity. For instance, the
Listing explains a “marked” limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace as follows:
We do not define “marked” by a specific number of tasks that you are
unable to complete, but by the nature and overall degree of interference
with function. You may be able to sustain attention and persist at simple
tasks but may still have difficulty with complicated tasks. Deficiencies
that are apparent only in performing complex procedures or tasks would
not satisfy the intent of this paragraph B criterion.5 However, if you can
complete many simple tasks, we may nevertheless find that you have a
marked limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace if you cannot
complete these tasks without extra supervision or assistance, or in
accordance with quality and accuracy standards, or at a consistent pace
without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, or without
undue interruptions or distractions.
In order to be deemed “severe” under the Listing, a claimant must show in part that he has at least two of
the so-called “Paragraph B” or “Paragraph C” criteria. Listing at § 12.00. Worthy complained about depression and
anxiety-related disorders, both of which carry the same Paragraph B criteria, requiring at least two of the following:
(1) marked restriction of activities of daily living; (2) marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3)
marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or (4) repeated episodes of decompensation.
Id. § 12.04(B), §12.06(B). The Paragraph C criteria for affective disorders, including depression, require: (1)
repeated episodes of decompensation, each for extended duration; (2) a residual disease process that has resulted in
such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be
predicted to cause the individual to decompensate; or (3) a current history of one or more years' inability to function
outside a highly supportive living arrangement, with an indication of continued need for such an arrangement. Id. §
12.04(C).The Paragraph C criteria for anxiety-related disorders require that the disorder “result[s] in complete
inability to function outside the area of one’s home.” Listing § 12.06(C).
Listing at § 12.00(C)(3). The Listing also cautions that evaluations determining whether a
claimant suffers from such limitations should be considered in light of the settings in which those
tests were administered, and the additional pressures or supports that might be present during a
normal workday. Id.
There is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s finding that Dr. FranklinZitzkat’s determination of “marked” limitations should be given lesser weight. The ALJ’s
opinion suggests he discounted Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s account not only because it was overly
reliant on Worthy’s self-reporting, but because it was inconsistent with Worthy’s other
statements about his ability to perform the activities of daily life without significant supervision,
see (R. at 71), and with the results of Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s own tests during the examination,
although admittedly those tests were not administered in a workplace-like context, see (R. at 73)
(citing Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s report, (R. at 604), which found that Worthy “performed
adequately” on a concentration test and exhibited only “mild difficulty” on the short-term
The ALJ also properly relied on elements of Worthy’s longitudinal medical history that at
least indirectly undermined the weight of Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s opinion. Neither the ALJ nor
either party here identified any evidence in the record that any other examining or treating
physician had directly addressed Worthy’s memory or concentration issues. Instead, however,
the ALJ pointed to evidence in the record that Worthy had “a normal mood and affect” and that
his mental functioning was “stable.” Id. The Commissioner provides additional citations in the
record to examining physicians’ observations that Worthy showed “no mental abnormalities”
and had a “normal mood” or affect. Def.’s Br. at 9–10. Those observations were not made with
the pressures and stresses of the workplace in mind, see Scandura, 2009 WL 648611, at *9, and
they do not directly discuss Worthy’s memory or concentration. Nevertheless, the ALJ was
“entitled to consider the lack of evidence demonstrating severe mental limitations,” such as
marked difficulties with memory and concentration, in assessing the weight of Dr. FranklinZitzkat’s opinions. Bruno v. Colvin, 2016 WL 3661243, at *7 (D. Vt. July 5, 2016); see also id.
(“‘The [Commissioner] is entitled to rely not only on what the record says, but also on what it
does not say.’”) (quoting Dumas v. Schweiker, 712 F.2d 1545, 1553 (2d Cir. 1983)) (alterations
Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in discounting Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s opinion that
Worthy had the enumerated “marked” limitations, and accordingly there is no need to remand on
D. Assessment of Worthy’s Credibility
Finally, Worthy asserts that the ALJ erred when he found that Worthy’s own testimony
regarding the “intensity, persistence and limiting effects” of his symptoms to be “not entirely
credible.” (R. at 68)
The parties agree that when evaluating the credibility of a claimant’s testimony, in
addition to considering the objective medical evidence in the record, the ALJ must consider the
1. The individual’s daily activities;
2. The location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the individual’s pain
or other symptoms;
3. Factors that precipitate and aggravate the symptoms;
4. The type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication the
individual takes or has taken to alleviate pain or other symptoms;
5. Treatment, other than medication, the individual receives or has
received for relief of pain or other symptoms;
6. Any measures other than treatment the individual uses or has used to
relieve pain or other symptoms (e.g., lying flat on his or her back, standing
for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, or sleeping on a board); and
7. Any other factors concerning the individual’s functional limitations and
restrictions due to pain or other symptoms.
Titles II & Xvi: Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims: Assessing the Credibility of an
Individual's Statements, SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 at *3 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996).
The ALJ found Worthy’s testimony regarding the extent of both his physical and his
mental limitations to be not entirely credible. With respect to the physical limitations, as the
Commissioner points out, the ALJ does appear to have explicitly discussed many of the SSP 967p factors—he discussed what he viewed as inconsistencies with the objective medical evidence
and treatments, and evidence regarding Worthy’s ability to engage in the activities of daily
living. (R. at 68–70)
With respect to the mental health issues, despite making an earlier finding that Worthy
suffered from the “severe impairments” of depression and anxiety, the ALJ also stated that the
extent of the limitations about which Worthy complained were “not entirely credible” (R. at 68)
He stated that: “Although [Worthy] testified to . . . recurrent depression and anxiety contributing
to his difficulty with concentration, as discussed, the evidence of record shows that he has a
higher level of functioning than alleged.” Id. The difficulty in assessing the ALJ’s determination
here, however, is that the ALJ does not specify which of Worthy’s “allegations” are being
rejected. The parties agree that Worthy did not testify directly about his mental limitations at all
during the hearing, and his brief before the hearing relies wholly on Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s report
to establish his mental health limitations. See (R. at 364). Accordingly, it is unclear how or why
Worthy was found to be non-credible, or what effect that credibility determination had on the
RFP. Such an ambiguous statement “prevent[s] the Court from determining whether findings
about [Worthy’s] credibility ought to be upheld under the deferential standard of review,” and
accordingly constitutes legal error. Hogan v. Astrue, 491 F. Supp. 2d 347, 353 (W.D.N.Y. 2007).
Like with Dr. Franklin-Zitzkat’s opinion, however, the ALJ’s error here is harmless.
Worthy’s failure to make any statement about the impact of his mental health on his ability to
work cannot reasonably be understood to support a finding that it does so.
Worthy’s motion for remand is denied (doc. 12) and the Commissioner’s motion to
affirm is granted (doc. 14). The Clerk shall enter judgment and close this case.
Dated at Bridgeport, Connecticut, this 27th day of March 2017.
/s/ STEFAN R. UNDERHILL
Stefan R. Underhill
United States District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?