KATSOUDAS v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge Stanley R. Chesler on 9/8/2017. (ld, )
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Civil Action No. 16-3518 (SRC)
CHESLER, District Judge
This matter comes before the Court on the appeal by Plaintiff Fotini Katsoudas
(“Plaintiff”) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)
determining that she was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). This Court
exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and, having considered the submissions of
the parties without oral argument, pursuant to L. CIV. R. 9.1(b), finds that the Commissioner’s
decision will be vacated.
In brief, this appeal arises from Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits,
alleging disability beginning July 15, 2012. A hearing was held before ALJ Theresa Merrill (the
“ALJ”) on December 18, 2014, and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 9, 2015,
finding Plaintiff not disabled. After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review,
the ALJ’s decision became the Commissioner’s final decision, and Plaintiff filed this appeal.
In the decision of February 9, 2015, the ALJ found that, at step three, Plaintiff did not
meet or equal any of the Listings. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity to perform sedentary work, with certain limitations. At step four, the ALJ
also found that Plaintiff did not retain the residual functional capacity to perform her past
relevant work. At step five, the ALJ consulted a vocational expert and concluded that there are
other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can
perform, consistent with her medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and
residual functional capacity. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the
meaning of the Act.
On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed and the
case remanded on two grounds, but this Court need only reach the argument that succeeds: the
ALJ erred in her residual functional capacity determination at step four by overlooking
significant conflicting evidence.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not address the evaluation by treating physician Dr.
Bryan Kelly. In opposition, the Commissioner does not dispute the basic facts – that the record
contains an evaluation form from Dr. Kelly, and the ALJ did not mention it – but, rather, argues:
“it is evident from the ALJ’s decision that the ALJ found that Dr. Kelly did not offer a ‘medical
opinion’ with respect to Plaintiff’s functioning.” (Def.’s Opp. Br. 9.) The Commissioner
pointed to the fact that the record contains one form from Dr. Kelly which states that he is not
able to provide an opinion regarding Plaintiff’s ability to work, and that, while there is another
form in the record which states that Plaintiff cannot sit for more than two hours in an eight-hour
workday, and it has Dr. Kelly’s name on it, there is no signature page. The Commissioner
argues that, because there is no signature page, somehow it was “reasonable” for the ALJ to
ignore Dr. Kelly’s evidence entirely. (Def.’s Opp. Br. 9.)
This Court finds the Commissioner’s arguments in opposition totally unpersuasive. The
Third Circuit has held:
In evaluating medical reports, the ALJ is free to choose the medical opinion of
one doctor over that of another. However, when a conflict in the evidence exists,
the ALJ may choose whom to credit but cannot reject evidence for no reason or
for the wrong reason. The ALJ must consider all the evidence and give some
reason for discounting the evidence she rejects.
Diaz v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 505-506 (3d Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). In the
instant case, the ALJ appears to have either overlooked or rejected the evidence from Dr. Kelly
and has not provided a reason for the omission of this evidence from consideration. This Court
cannot review a decision in which the ALJ has failed to explain the reason why she did not credit
or even consider Dr. Kelly’s opinion. This Court declines the Commissioner’s invitation to
imagine why the ALJ did what she did, and to affirm the imaginary rationale. Nor does this
Court agree that Dr. Kelly’s evaluation form does not constitute a medical opinion.
This determination is not amenable to meaningful review. An ALJ need not “use
particular language or adhere to a particular format in conducting his analysis,” as long as “there
is sufficient development of the record and explanation of findings to permit meaningful
review.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 505 (3d Cir. 2004). In the present case, the ALJ’s
decision does not contain sufficient explanation for the lack of consideration of significant
contradictory evidence to permit meaningful review. The ALJ’s determination at step four is not
amenable to meaningful review and must be vacated, pursuant to Burnett v. Commissioner of
SSA, 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000).
The ALJ’s residual functional capacity determination at step four does not contain
sufficient explanation to allow meaningful review. For this reason, this Court finds that the
Commissioner’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence, and the Commissioner’s
decision is vacated and remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this Opinion.
s/ Stanley R. Chesler
STANLEY R. CHESLER, U.S.D.J.
Dated: September 8, 2017
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