Martucci v. Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM & ORDER: The parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings are denied and the case is remanded for further proceedings. On remand, the ALJ should properly evaluate Martucci's subjective complaints of pain in light of the evidence in the record. Forwarded for judgment. Ordered by Judge Frederic Block on 8/21/2012. (Chee, Alvin)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
-againstMICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social Security,
For the Plaintiff:
HAROLD SKOVRONSKY, ESQ.
1810 Avenue N
Brooklyn, New York 11230
For the Defendant:
LORETTA E. LYNCH, ESQ.
United States Attorney
DAVID MICHAEL ESKEW, ESQ.
Assistant United States Attorney
Eastern District of New York
271 Cadman Plaza East
Brooklyn, NY 11201
BLOCK, Senior District Judge:
Plaintiff Roseann Martucci seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for benefits under the Social
Security Act (the “Act”). Both parties move for judgment on the pleadings. The parties’ motions
are denied, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Martucci filed an application for disability insurance benefits on July 8, 2009,
claiming that she suffered from spinal disease and anxiety.
After the Social Security
Administration denied her application, Martucci requested a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”).
As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Martucci meets the insured status
requirements of the Act. Next, applying the familiar five-step process, the ALJ found that
Martucci had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, January 23,
2009. Second, the ALJ found that Martucci’s degenerative disc disease qualified as a medically
determinable severe impairment, but that her anxiety did not. Third, the ALJ considered
whether Martucci’s degenerative disc disease met the criteria listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1, and found that it did not. Fourth, the ALJ determined that Martucci had the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work. Finally, the
ALJ found that Martucci was capable of performing her past relevant work as a self-employed
corporate stock lender, because “[a]s described by claimant, this job was performed at the
sedentary level.” A.R. at 16.
On February 9, 2011, the ALJ issued his decision concluding that Martucci is not
disabled within the meaning of the Act. On June 22, 2011, the Appeals Council denied
Martucci’s request for review, rendering the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits final.
Martucci timely sought judicial review.
In evaluating the Commissioner’s final ruling, the district court “review[s] the
administrative record de novo to determine whether there is substantial evidence supporting
the Commissioner’s decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard.”
Acierno v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 77, 80–81 (2d Cir.2007) (quoting Pollard v. Halter, 377 F.3d 183, 188
(2d Cir.2004)). The ALJ erred, applying an incorrect legal standard, in evaluating Martucci’s
subjective complaints of pain.
An ALJ “has discretion to evaluate the credibility of a claimant and to arrive at an
independent judgment, in light of medical findings and other evidence, regarding the true extent
of the pain alleged by the claimant.” Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). The ALJ
must consider “[s]tatements [the claimant] or others make about [her] impairment(s), [her]
restrictions, [her] daily activities, [her] efforts to work, or any other relevant statements [she]
make[s] to medical sources during the course of examination or treatment or to [the agency]
during interviews, on applications, in letters, and in testimony in. . . administrative
proceedings.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(b)(3); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a).
The ALJ’s written opinion does not demonstrate consideration of any of these
factors. Instead, the ALJ noted the following:
This is not to imply that claimant does not experience pain and
discomfort, however, there is no evidence she has ever undergone
physical therapy, acupuncture, or other conservative treatment
modalities, and continues to refuse surgery, options any individual
would want to consider if they were experiencing debilitating pain
such as claimant alleges. Further, claimant does not use or require
a cane for ambulation.
A.R. at 16. Having determined that Martucci’s statements about the severity of her pain were
not credible, the ALJ gave “fairly little weight” to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr.
Joseph Suarez, that this pain prevented her from returning to work. Id.
In this evaluation, the ALJ improperly “substitute[d] his own judgment for
competent medical opinion” by basing his disability determination entirely on what he, a nonmedical professional, believed would be an appropriate course of treatment for debilitating pain.
Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 81 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). Contrary to
the ALJ’s statements, the record shows that Martucci did attend physical therapy sessions in an
attempt to remedy her pain. She also received prescriptions for pain medicine. There is no
clinical evidence showing that alternative therapies like acupuncture would be effective for
Martucci’s back pain, or that any physician recommended such a course of treatment. Although
Martucci’s treating physician informed her that surgery was a “possible” treatment for her back
pain, there are no records stating that surgery was necessary or would absolutely cure her
impairment. A.R. at 160. At her hearing, the ALJ questioned Martucci about her pain
management using prescription medications such as Oxycodone and about her use of a cane to
climb stairs and to walk around her home, but he did not ask about alternative treatments or her
fear of undergoing surgery.
Accordingly, there was no support in the record for the ALJ’s finding that the
absence of such treatments cast doubt upon the legitimacy of Martucci’s subjective complaints
of pain. In light of the ALJ’s flawed evaluation of Martucci’s ailments, there is insufficient
evidence to establish as a matter of law that she is disabled.
For the foregoing reasons, the parties’ motions are denied and the case is remanded
for further proceedings. On remand, the ALJ should properly evaluate Martucci’s subjective
complaints of pain in light of the evidence in the record.
/s/ Judge Frederic Block
Senior United States District Judge
Brooklyn, New York
August 21, 2012
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