Jeanniton v. Colvin
ORDER granting 13 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; granting 21 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; denying 23 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS ---- For the reasons set forth in the ATTACHED WRITTEN OPINION AND ORDER, Plaintiff's motion to strike the Supplemental Record filed by the Commissioner and motion for judgment on the pleadings are granted, and the Commissioner's cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings i s denied. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and this matter is remanded to the Commissioner pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further administrative proceedings consistent with this Court's opinion. If Plaintiff's benefits remain denied, the Commissioner is directed to render a final decision within sixty (60) days of Plaintiffs appeal, if any. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 387 (2d Cir. 2004). The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment in favor of plaintiff and to close this case. SO ORDERED by Chief Judge Dora Lizette Irizarry on 3/31/2017. (Irizarry, Dora)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
SMICIA DADA JEANNITON,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
DORA L. IRIZARRY, Chief United States District Judge:
OPINION AND ORDER
On July 12, 2012, Plaintiff Smicia Dada Jeanniton (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for
social security disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the
“Act”), alleging disability beginning June 26, 2012. See Certified Administrative Record (“R.”),
Dkt. Entry No. 9, at 23, 160-66. Plaintiff’s application was denied, Id. at 74-79, and she timely
requested a hearing.
Id. at 80-81. On May 8, 2014, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before
Administrative Law Judge Kieran McCormack (the “ALJ”). Id. at 38-72. On May 29, 2014, the
ALJ issued a decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act.
Id. at 20-37. On July 13, 2015, the ALJ’s decision became the Commissioner’s final decision
when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. Id. at 1-5.
Plaintiff filed the instant appeal seeking judicial review of the denial of benefits pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Complaint (“Compl.”), Dkt. Entry No. 1. Pursuant to Rule 12(c) of
the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings seeking
reversal of the Commissioner’s decision or, alternatively, remand for further administrative
proceedings. See Mem. of Law in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. for J. on the Pleadings (“Pl. Mem.”), Dkt.
On January 23, 2017, Nancy A. Berryhill became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. Therefore, the
Court has substituted her as the named Defendant pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d).
Entry No. 22. The Commissioner cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings seeking affirmance
of the denial of benefits. See Mem. of Law in Supp. of Def.’s Cross-Mot. for J. on the Pleadings
and in Opp. to Pl.’s Mot. For J. on the Pleadings (“Def. Mem.”), Dkt. Entry No. 24. For the reasons
set forth below, the Commissioner’s cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.
Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted, and the instant action is remanded for
further administrative proceedings.
Non-Medical and Self-Reported Evidence
Plaintiff was born in 1966.3 R. at 160. She was 45 years old at the time she allegedly
became disabled. Id. at 31. She is a high school graduate. Id. at 193. From 1992 to 2012, Plaintiff
worked full time as a home health aide or nurse assistant at a nursing home. Id. at 45-48, 193.
Plaintiff slipped at work in February 2011 and injured her left shoulder, arm, neck, back, and left
knee. Id. at 46-47. She underwent knee surgery on May 25, 2011 and received physical therapy
and treatment for a few months thereafter. Id. at 52, 265, 280-81. She returned to work in
November 2011, but was unable to work on and after June 26, 2012. Id. at 46, 52, 192. Plaintiff
subsequently received a lump sum workers’ compensation settlement and was entitled to receive
ongoing medical treatment. Id. at 54-55.
In a disability report dated July 13, 2012, Plaintiff stated that she was five feet and two
inches in height and weighed 173 pounds. Id. at 192. In a function report dated July 26, 2012, Id.
at 211-18, she reported that she did not need help to care for her personal needs or take medication.
Having thoroughly and carefully reviewed the administrative record, the Court finds the Commissioner’s factual
background accurately represents the relevant portions of said record. Accordingly, the following background is
taken substantially from the background section of the Commissioner’s brief, except as otherwise indicated.
Plaintiff was 45 years old on the alleged disability onset date, June 26, 2012. As such, Plaintiff was a “younger
person” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c).
Id. at 213. She fixed meals twice per week. Id. Plaintiff stated that she did not need help doing
household chores. Id. at 214. She was able to go out alone, and walked or drove a car. Id. She
shopped twice a month for food with the help of her son. Id. at 215. She went to church every
Saturday. Id. at 215-16. She reported that her ability to lift, stand, walk, climb stairs, and kneel
were affected by her impairments. Id. at 216. She did not report having problems with sitting,
squatting, reaching, or using her hands. Id. at 216-17. She said she was right-handed and used a
cane when walking. Id. at 217. In an appeal disability report submitted in September 2012, Id. at
205-10, Plaintiff reported that she was unable to stand up for “long periods of time” and was unable
to clean her house. Id. at 208. She said she was in “a lot more pain,” sat and lied down more, and
did less than she previously reported. Id.
On May 8, 2014, Plaintiff testified at an administrative hearing before the ALJ. Id. at 3872. She testified that, in addition to her work accident in February 2011, she injured her left knee
in a car accident in May 2010, for which she underwent her arthroscopic knee surgery in May 2011
and had physical therapy until July 2012. Id. at 52-54. She thus had two surgeries on the same
knee. Id. at 277. Plaintiff testified that her knee still hurt and, sometimes, she could not stand on
it for a long time. Id. at 56. She refused additional knee replacement surgery because she already
had “[t]oo much surgery” and used a cane. Id. at 56-57, 64. When her back was “killing [her] so
much,” she used the cane in the house. Id. at 61. Plaintiff testified that she had lower back pain
and could not “sit too long.” Id. at 57. Plaintiff said her neck and left shoulder hurt when she
carried things. Id. She had a big bump on her left shoulder and could not lift “too good.” Id.
Sometimes, she could not move her neck. Id. at 64. She did not want the recommended surgery
on her neck and left shoulder because it was “too much,” and she was afraid of surgery Id. at 57,
64. For pain, she was prescribed Ibuprofen and Tylenol. Id. at 58. She also took medication for
high blood pressure and diabetes, which did not cause side effects. Id. at 59.
Plaintiff testified that she could sit for ten minutes before needing to stand up due to back,
neck, and foot pain, and could stand for eight to ten minutes before needing to sit back down. Id.
at 63-64. She could lift four pounds, and felt pain in her back and neck when lifting things. Id. at
64. Plaintiff stated that she could not walk far, only less than two blocks. Id. She was able to
bathe and dress herself and sometimes cooked meals. Id. at 61. She stated that she went to the
grocery store and laundromat with her son’s help and usually cooked for her son in the morning.
Id. at 61-62. Her son did household chores, such as mopping the floor. Id. at 60. She testified
that she had a driver’s license, but had not driven since 2011 and used public transportation instead.
Id. at 62. She went to church every Saturday. Id. at 63.
Christina Boardman, a vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. Id. at 66-70; see
151-53. She stated that Plaintiff’s past relevant work as a nurse assistant was considered “medium
work.” Id. at 66. The ALJ asked about a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff’s age, education,
and work experience, who could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, and otherwise
perform sedentary work, but who could not climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; squat; kneel; crouch;
or crawl. Id. at 68. The ALJ asked whether such an individual could perform Plaintiff’s past
relevant work. Id. The VE responded that such an individual could not do Plaintiff’s past relevant
work as a nurse assistant, but would be able to perform the following sedentary jobs: charge
account clerk, order clerk, and table worker. Id. at 67-68.
Relevant Medical Evidence
1. Medical Evidence Prior to June 26, 2012
On July 9, 2010, Plaintiff underwent a left knee arthroscopy for injuries sustained in a
motor vehicle accident that occurred on May 29, 2010. Id. at 274. In December 2010, Plaintiff
went to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center (“Wyckoff”) with complaints of right leg and foot pain.
Id. at 230-58.
Plaintiff had worked as a nurse assistant for nearly 20 years before February 2, 2011, when
she slipped and fell at work. Id. at 259. She was taken to the Wyckoff emergency room, where
she was diagnosed with a head injury and elbow contusion. Id. at 223-24. X-rays showed a normal
lumbosacral spine. Id. at 227. A CT-scan of her head was normal. Id. at 228. A cervical spine
CT-scan showed mild degenerative changes. Id. at 229. Plaintiff was advised to see her primary
care physician and resume activity as tolerated. Id. at 223.
In a report dated February 24, 2011, Henry Htay Myint, M.D., diagnosed Plaintiff with
cervical and lumbar radicular pain and left shoulder muscle spasm. Id. at 284. Dr. Myint
recommended physical and chiropractic therapy, knee supports, and magnetic resonance imaging
(“MRI”) of the shoulder and prescribed Ibuprofen. Id. He noted that Plaintiff was partially
disabled and could not return to work until March 30, 2011. Id.
A left shoulder MRI performed on March 28, 2011 showed supraspinatus tendinosis,
acromioclavicular joint productive change and type II acromion, long head of the biceps fluid, and
glenohumeral fluid in the axillary recess with extension into the subscapularis bursa. Id. at 26061.
Orthopedic surgeon Menachem Epstein, M.D., examined Plaintiff on March 31, 2011, in
connection with her workers’ compensation claim. Id. at 273-78. Dr. Epstein diagnosed status
post left knee arthroscopy, swelling, adhesive capsulitis, cervical spine soft tissue sprain, lumbar
spine mild soft tissue sprain, and left shoulder soft tissue sprain. Id. at 277. He stated that her
degree of disability was “moderate partial” and that her current injuries were “superimposed” on
her prior injuries from the motor vehicle accident in May 2010. Id. at 278.
On April 15, 2011, Plaintiff saw orthopedic surgeon Andrew Turtel, M.D. Dr. Turtel
diagnosed “possible recurrent medial meniscus tear/early osteoarthritis” and recommended left
knee replacement surgery; arthroscopy was presented as an interim measure. Id. at 282-83. Dr.
Turtel performed an arthroscopy on Plaintiff’s left knee on May 25, 2011. Id. at 280-81. In a postoperative report dated June 3, 2011, Dr. Turtel reported that Plaintiff had good range of motion
and minimal discomfort and gave her a prescription for physical therapy. Id. at 279. She used a
cane but was to use it less over time. Id.
An MRI of Plaintiff’s neck soft tissue conducted on July 18, 2011 showed scoliosis versus
the positional curve, prominence of a few left submandibular/submental lymph nodes, no evidence
of solid mass or lymph node enlargement in area of clinical concern, and a mucus retention cyst.
Id. at 263-64.
Orthopedic surgeon Stephen Zolan, M.D., performed an orthopedic consultation in
connection with Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim on July 21, 2011. Id. at 269-72. Dr.
Zolan noted that Plaintiff presented a moderate partial disability. Id. at 271. Dr. Zolan reevaluated
Plaintiff on December 1, 2011. Id. at 265-68. He indicated that she had stopped treatment and
physical therapy for her knee and had returned to regular work as a nurse assistant on November
1, 2011. Id. at 265. Plaintiff complained of “left knee pain predominantly status post-surgery”
and occasional back, neck, and left shoulder discomfort. Id. at 266. Dr. Zolan stated that Plaintiff
had reached maximal medical improvement and did not require further orthopedic or
physiotherapy treatment or surgical intervention. Id. at 267. She exhibited no orthopedic
Plaintiff stopped working on June 26, 2016 due to her condition. Id. at 192.
2. Medical Evidence On or After June 26, 2012
Plaintiff began treatment with family practitioner Jacqueline Storey, M.D., Id. at 299, on
July 5, 2012. Id. at 294-98, 315-19. Plaintiff complained of having difficulty sitting, standing,
kneeling, and walking up or down stairs. Id. at 294. She walked with a cane for support and
balance due to left knee pain. Id. at 296. Plaintiff said she experienced intermittent pain in the
cervical spine (sharp, shooting, improved, and radiating to the left shoulder), thoracic spine
(improved), and lumbar spine (shooting, dull ache, radiating to the left leg). Id. at 295-96. On
examination, straight leg raising was positive at 40 degrees on the left. Id. at 296. Sensation was
normal in her neck. Id. There was paresthesia in the left leg. Id. Plaintiff said she could not stand
more than one-half hour or sit for more than one hour. Id. There was tenderness in the upper
trapizious/paraspinal muscles, cervical spine range of motion, and normal sensation. Id. at 295.
There was tenderness of the paraspinal muscles and decreased range of motion of the lumbar spine.
Id. at 296. Plaintiff complained of left knee and left shoulder pain, and examination showed
tenderness, but no swelling. Id. Dr. Storey diagnosed cervical, thoracic, and lumbar strain, but
ruled out radiculopathy, left shoulder injury, and status post left knee arthroscopy for meniscal
tear. Id. at 297. She prescribed continuation of physical therapy and Tramadol for pain. Id.; see
Id. at 293, 314. Dr. Storey opined that Plaintiff had a mild disability, Id. at 298, and would be able
to return to work on August 10, 2012. Id. at 299, 319, 320.
On July 10, 2012, Dr. Storey indicated that Plaintiff continued to received physical therapy,
was partially disabled, could not return to work, and would be evaluated again on August 10, 2012.
Id. at 300. In a workers’ compensation form dated July 19, 2012, Dr. Storey indicated that Plaintiff
needed physical therapy. Id. at 292, 313.
Plaintiff followed up with Dr. Storey on August 3, 2012. Id. at 286-90, 307-11. Plaintiff
reported that her cervical pain (radiating to left shoulder) was improved. Id. at 287. Her lumbar
(radiating to the left leg), left knee, and left shoulder pain remained the same. Id. at 288.
Examination findings of the neck, back, and shoulder were essentially the same as those in July.
Id. at 287-88. There was swelling of the left knee. Id. at 288. Plaintiff continued to ambulate with
a cane to support her left knee. Id. at 288, 309. Dr. Storey’s diagnoses and prescribed treatment
remained the same, including additional diagnostic studies of the spine, continuation of physical
therapy, and Tramadol for pain. Id. at 289, 310. She referred Plaintiff to orthopedic surgeon Dr.
Turtel. Id. She ordered a lumbar MRI. Id. Dr. Storey completed a workers’ compensation form
dated August 7, stating that Plaintiff could not work due to severely reduced range of motion of
the left knee. Id. at 291, 312.
Plaintiff was examined by consultative examiner Chaim Shtock, M.D., on August 16, 2012.
Id. at 301-04. Plaintiff complained of left knee pain, which was aggravated with prolonged
standing, walking, and bending. Id. at 301. She also complained of neck pain radiating to the left
trapezius muscle, which was aggravated with left upper extremity overhead reaching and turning
her head. Id. Plaintiff reported taking Tylenol with Codeine, in addition to diabetes and
hypertension medication. Id. Plaintiff stated that she was independent in cooking and caring for
herself, but needed her son’s help for cleaning, washing, laundry, and shopping. Id. at 302. She
reported watching TV, listening to the radio, reading, and socializing with friends. Id. On
examination, Plaintiff appeared to be in no acute distress. Id. She weighed 176 pounds, and her
blood pressure was 110/70. Id. She walked with an antalgic gait and needed a cane for increased
pain and decreased stability. Id. Plaintiff was unable to walk on her heels and toes or squat beyond
20% because of left knee pain. Id. She needed no help changing or getting on or off the
examination table. Id. She rose from a chair with difficulty due to knee pain. Id. Plaintiff’s hand
and finger dexterity were intact, and her grip strength was full (5 out of 5) bilaterally. Id. Cervical
spine range of motion was reduced due to pain. Id. Plaintiff reported left side cervical and
paravertebral tenderness, as well as muscle spasm and tenderness in the left trapezius muscle. Id.
at 302-03. Plaintiff demonstrated full range of motion of the thoracic and lumbar spines with no
spasm or tenderness. Id. at 303. Straight leg raising was negative. Id. She had full ranges of
motion of the upper extremities and full (5 out of 5) strength in the proximal and distal muscles;
there was no atrophy or sensory deficits. Id. Evaluation of the left knee showed swelling, and
Plaintiff reported tenderness and pain upon compression of the medial, lateral, and anterior aspect
of the left knee. Id. Left knee flexion was reduced due to pain and stiffness. Id. The right knee
and bilateral hips and ankles had full ranges of motion. Id.
Dr. Shtock diagnosed neck pain, left trapezius muscle pain, left knee pain, status post left
knee arthroscopic surgery, status post cesarean section, and reported histories of hypertension and
Type 2 diabetes. Id. He opined that Plaintiff had severe limitations in heavy lifting, squatting,
kneeling, and crouching. Id. at 304. She had moderate to marked limitations for frequent stair
climbing; marked limitations for walking long distances and standing for long periods; and mild
limitation with sitting long periods. Id. He stated that Plaintiff had no limitation with frequent
bending or performing overhead activities using both arms and that she had no limitation using her
hands for fine and gross manual activities. Id.
On September 10, 2012, orthopedic surgeon Barry Katzman, M.D., conducted an
independent medical examination at the request of the Workers’ Compensation Board. Id. at 32531. Plaintiff reported that the left knee arthroscopy performed in May 2011 had helped; knee
replacement was recommended, but she did not want it. Id. at 326. She said she had experienced
no change to the condition of her neck, lower back, left shoulder, and left knee. Id. She had
numbness in the left arm, back, left knee, and left foot twice a week. Id. On examination, Plaintiff
weighed 169 pounds. Id. at 327. She had reduced range of motion of her cervical spine, and no
tenderness over the paraspinal muscles. Id. She had full (5 out of 5) strength and sensation in the
upper extremities. Id. Plaintiff had reduced range of motion of the thoracolumbar spine, and no
tenderness over the spinous processes or paraspinal muscles. Id. She had full (5 out of 5) strength
and sensation in the lower extremities. Id. Straight leg raising was negative. Id. Plaintiff had full
forward flexion of the left shoulder, and there was tenderness over the trapezius. Id. She had near
full range of motion of the left knee, with no tenderness over the quadriceps, patellar tendons, or
the medial or lateral joint lines. Id. There was no instability. Id.
Dr. Katzman diagnosed cervical strain, resolved lumbar strain, resolved left shoulder strain,
and status post left knee surgery. Id. at 329. He stated that full medical improvement had been
reached. Id. He opined that Plaintiff was capable of working with limited walking and lifting of
not more than 20 pounds. Id. at 330. He assessed her disability as moderate partial. Id.
A cervical spine MRI performed on November 21, 2012, Id. at 346-47, showed a left
paracentral/left foraminal herniation with severe left foraminal and thecal sac impingement at C3C4, disc bulge with anterior thecal sac impingement at C7-T1, and disc bulge with anterior thecal
sac impingement at C2-C3. Id. at 347. The lumbar spine MRI performed that day showed reduced
disc signal intensity, disc bulge with significant bilateral foraminal impingement, and anterior
thecal sac impingement at L4-L5, a disc bulge with significant bilateral foraminal impingement at
L5-S1, and a reduction in disc signal intensity and a disc bulge with bilateral foraminal
impingement at L3-L4. Id. at 351-52.
Progress reports generated for the Workers’ Compensation Board on May 1 and July 8,
2013 by Robert Hecht, M.D., of Island Musculoskeletal Care, showed diagnoses of cervical and
lumbar spine strain, shoulder derangement, and internal knee derangement. Id. at 344-45, 354-55.
He indicated that Plaintiff’s complaints were consistent with her history of injury and decreased
range of motion. Id. at 345. He opined that Plaintiff had a 100% temporary disability and could
not return to work due to pain and decreased range of motion. Id. at 345, 355. He recommended
In his examination notes dated July 3, 2013, Id. at 356-57, Dr. Hecht reported that Plaintiff
had tenderness and restricted range of motion of the cervical spine; there was no spasm, and
lordosis was normal. Id. at 356. There was tenderness and restricted range of motion of the left
shoulder. Id. She had full active range of motion, full (5 out of 5) motor strength, and normal
strength and reflexes in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Id. There was tenderness and restricted
range of motion of the lumbar spine, but no spasm. Id. Straight leg raising was negative bilaterally.
Id. There was mild atrophy of the left distal quadriceps. Id. In the left knee, there was mild
weakness with extension and restricted range of motion. Id. Plaintiff had full active range of
motion and full (5 out of 5) motor strength in the hips, ankles, and right knee. Id. Dr. Hecht opined
that Plaintiff remained totally disabled from her job and prescribed Tramadol. Id.
Dr. Turtel provided a medical source statement dated February 4, 2014. Id. at 348-50. He
opined that Plaintiff was able to lift less than ten pounds, and stand and/or walk less than two hours
in an eight-hour workday. Id. at 348. He said Plaintiff could sit for less than six hours. Id. at 349.
She was limited in using the lower extremities for pushing/pulling. Id. She was unlimited in
performing manipulative functions. Id. She could climb and balance occasionally, but never
kneel, crouch, crawl, or stoop. Id. at 350. Dr. Turtel noted that Plaintiff “continues to struggle,”
but was slightly improved with physical therapy and would continue exercises on her own and
follow-up on an “as required” basis. Id. at 353.
Standard of Review
Unsuccessful claimants seeking disability benefits under the Act may appeal the
Commissioner’s decision by seeking judicial review and bringing an action in federal district court
“within sixty days after the mailing . . . of notice of such decision or within such further time as
the Commissioner of Social Security may allow.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing the final
determination of the Commissioner, a district court must determine whether the correct legal
standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. See Zabala v.
Astrue, 595 F.3d 402, 408 (2d Cir. 2010); Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). The
former determination requires the court to ask whether “the claimant has had a full hearing under
the [Commissioner’s] regulations and in accordance with the beneficent purposes of the Act.”
Echevarria v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 685 F.2d 751, 755 (2d Cir. 1982) (internal citations
omitted). The latter determination requires the court to ask whether the decision is supported by
more than a mere scintilla of relevant evidence that “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate
to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol.
Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); see Schaal, 134 F.3d at 501. If the district
court finds that there is substantial evidence supporting both the claimant’s and Commissioner’s
position, it must rule for the Commissioner, as that position is based on the factfinder’s
determination. Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) (internal citations omitted);
see also DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998) (affirming Commissioner’s
decision where substantial evidence supported either side).
The district court is empowered “to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record,
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). A remand by
the court for further proceedings is appropriate when “the Commissioner has failed to provide a
full and fair hearing, to make explicit findings, or to have correctly applied the . . . regulations.”
Manago v. Barnhart, 321 F. Supp. 2d 559, 568 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) (internal citations omitted). A
remand to the Commissioner also is appropriate “[w]here there are gaps in the administrative
record.” Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 83 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Sobolewski v. Apfel, 985 F.
Supp. 300, 314 (E.D.N.Y. 1997)). Unlike judges in trial, ALJs have a duty to “affirmatively
develop the record in light of the essentially non-adversarial nature of the benefits proceedings.”
Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1999) (quotations omitted).
To receive disability benefits, claimants must be disabled within the meaning of the Act.
See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a), (d). Claimants establish disability status by demonstrating an “inability
to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not
less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Further, the claimant’s impairment must have
been of such severity that she is unable to do her previous work or, considering her age, education,
and work experience, she could not have engaged in any other kind of substantial gainful work
that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The claimant bears the initial
burden of proving disability status by presenting “medical signs and findings, established by
medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques, which show the existence of a
medical impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities
which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged” and which
leads to the conclusion that the individual has a disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); see also
Carroll v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 642 (2d Cir. 1983) (internal citations
ALJs must adhere to a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled under
the Social Security Act, as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The inquiry ends at the earliest step
at which the ALJ determines that the claimant is either disabled or not disabled.
First, the claimant is not disabled if she is working and performing “substantial gainful
activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a “severe
impairment,” without reference to age, education, and work experience. Impairments are “severe”
if they significantly limit a claimant’s physical or mental ability to conduct basic work activities.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, she is not disabled.
Id. Third, if the impairment is “severe,” the ALJ will find the claimant disabled if her impairment
meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”).
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the ALJ makes a finding about the
claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) in steps four and five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
At the fourth step, the claimant is not disabled if she is able to perform past relevant work. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f). RFC is defined in the applicable regulations as “the most [the
claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). To determine RFC,
the ALJ makes a “function by function assessment of the claimant's ability to sit, stand, walk, lift,
carry, push, pull, reach, handle, stoop, or crouch . . . .” Sobolewski v. Apfel, 985 F. Supp. 300, 309
(E.D.N.Y. 1997). The results of this assessment determine the claimant's ability to perform the
exertional demands of sustained work and may be categorized as sedentary, light, medium, heavy,
or very heavy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567.
Finally, at the fifth step, the ALJ considers factors such as age, education, and work
experience, alongside her RFC, to determine whether the claimant could adjust to other work that
exists in the national economy. If the claimant could make such an adjustment, she is not disabled.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). At this final step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate
that the claimant could perform other work. See Draegert v. Barnhart, 311 F.3d 468, 472 (2d Cir.
2002) (citing Carroll, 705 F.2d at 642).
The ALJ’s Decision
On May 29, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff’s claims, concluding that
she was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. R. at 20-37. The ALJ followed the five-step
procedure in making his determination. Id. at 23-33. First, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 26, 2012, the alleged onset date. Id. at 25.
Second, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: status-post left knee arthroscopy in May
2011, cervical disc herniation and bulges with impingement, lumbar disc bulges, and left shoulder
tendonitis. Id. Third, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have impairments, in combination
or individually, that meet or medically equal the criteria of any listed impairment included in the
Listings. Id. at 26.
Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work, as defined by 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.1567(a), except that she could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolders, squat, kneel, crouch,
or crawl. Id. However, she could climb ramps and stairs and balance on an occasional basis. Id.
The ALJ found that, while the Plaintiff’s medically determinable impairments reasonably could
be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, not all the allegations were credible. Id. at 29.
Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and
limiting effects of her symptoms were not credible because “she still seems somewhat independent
in her activities of daily living.” Id. The ALJ gave significant weight to consultative examiner
Dr. Shtock and little weight to the opinions of treating physicians Drs. Turtel, Storey, and Katzman
and any opinions generated in the context of Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim. Id. at 30.
After concluding that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a nurse
assistant, Id. at 31, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth and final step. Relying on the testimony of the
VE, the ALJ found that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, there
were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform,
such as account clerk, order clerk, or table worker. Id. at 32-33. The ALJ thus concluded that a
finding of “not disabled” was appropriate.
Id. at 33.
The ALJ’s decision became the
Commissioner’s final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. Id.
Plaintiff moves for judgment on the pleadings, seeking reversal of the denial of benefits
and remand on the grounds that the ALJ failed to develop the record, properly apply the treating
physician rule in evaluating Dr. Storey’s and Dr. Turtel’s opinions, properly evaluate Plaintiff’s
credibility, and consider Listing 1.08 for soft tissue injuries. See Pl. Mem. at 3-23. The
Commissioner cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings, opposing the Plaintiff’s motion and
seeking affirmance of the denial of Plaintiff’s DIB benefits on the grounds that the ALJ applied
the correct legal standards to find that Plaintiff was not disabled and that the factual findings are
supported by substantial evidence. See generally, Def. Mem.
1. Failure to Develop the Record
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to develop the record by neglecting to request records
and a treating physician opinion from Dr. Albert Anglade. See Pl. Mem. at 14-17. Plaintiff
contends that Dr. Anglade was Plaintiff’s primary care physician, and, therefore, his records were
critical to the ALJ’s determination, given broad inconsistencies among the other medical opinions
available in the record. Id. The Commissioner counters by asserting that the lack of a treating
physician’s opinion does not require remand and implying that it was Plaintiff’s responsibility to
raise the issue with the ALJ. See Def. Mem., at 13-16. After a thorough and careful examination
of the administrative record, the Court concludes that the ALJ failed to develop the record fully in
accordance with the applicable regulations. Specifically, remand is required because the ALJ did
not request Dr. Anglade’s records or seek Dr. Anglade’s medical opinion concerning Plaintiff’s
As a result of the non-adversarial nature of Social Security benefit determinations, an ALJ
has “an affirmative obligation to develop the administrative record.” Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41,
47 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Echevarria, 685 F.2d at 755). The ALJ's obligation to develop the
administrative record exists even when the claimant is represented by counsel. Rosa, 168 F.3d at
79. This duty includes assembling a claimant’s medical history, contacting treating physicians if
the information received is insufficient to determine disability, explaining the importance of
evidence, and, “[a]t a minimum, if the ALJ is inclined to deny benefits, he should advise a claimant
that her case is unpersuasive and suggest that she supplement the record or call her treating
physician as a witness.” Batista v. Barnhart, 326 F. Supp.2d 345, 354 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) (internal
citations omitted). Where the ALJ has failed to develop the administrative record, remand for a
new hearing is appropriate. See Rosa, 168 F.3d at 80-81, 83.
Whether the ALJ has met his duty to develop the record is a threshold question. Before
reviewing whether the Commissioner’s final decision is supported by substantial evidence, under
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), “the court must first be satisfied that the ALJ provided plaintiff with ‘a full
hearing under the Secretary’s regulations’ and also fully and completely developed the
administrative record.” Scott v. Astrue, 2010 WL 2736879, at *12 (E.D.N.Y. July 9, 2010)
(quoting Echevarria, 685 F.2d at 755); see also Rodriguez v. Barnhart, 2003 WL 22709204, at *3
(E.D.N.Y. Nov. 7, 2003) (“The responsibility of an ALJ to fully develop the record is a bedrock
principle of Social Security law.”) (citing Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59 (2d Cir. 1999)).
However, despite the ALJ’s duty to develop the record, the law in this Circuit is clear: the
failure of an ALJ to request formal opinions from treating physicians is not reflexively fatal where
“the record contains sufficient evidence from which an ALJ can assess the petitioner’s residual
functional capacity.” Tankisi v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 521 F. App’x 29, 34 (2d Cir. 2013) (internal
citations omitted); see also Whipple v. Astrue, 479 F. App’x 367, 370 (2d Cir. 2012) (the ALJ’s
failure to secure a treating physician’s opinion was not legal error when he possessed
comprehensive medical notes); Blair v. Astrue, 2013 WL 782619, at *8 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2013)
(“[W]here the record contains [p]laintiff’s comprehensive medical records and consulting medical
experts provided opinions consistent with the ALJ’s findings, the ALJ [is] not required to seek
additional materials from [p]laintiff’s treating physicians.”) (internal citations omitted).
Nevertheless, while a lack of a statement from the plaintiff’s treating source regarding how
a plaintiff’s impairments affect her ability to perform work related activities will not render a report
incomplete, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(b)(6), the Commissioner still is obligated to request such a
statement. Johnson v. Astrue, 811 F. Supp. 2d 618, 629 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (citing Perez, 77 F.3d at
47); see also Robins v. Astrue, 2011 WL 2446371, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. June 15, 2011) (“Although the
regulation provides that the lack of such a statement will not render a report incomplete, it
nevertheless promises that the Commissioner will request one.”).
In the instant case, the record shows that the ALJ neither requested records from Dr.
Anglade nor sought a treating physician opinion from Dr. Anglade about Plaintiff’s condition and
ability to work. The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance listed Dr.
Anglade as the first treating source on the state agency’s disability worksheet used to track records
from treating sources. R. at 338. Presumably, Dr. Anglade was listed at the top because Plaintiff
listed Dr. Anglade as the primary physician who “may have medical records about any of [her]
physical and/or mental condition(s)” on the disability report dated July 13, 2012. Id. at 195-96;
206-07. The disability worksheet indicates that two requests were made to a “Brooklyn Hospital”
on July 23, 2012 and August 6, 2012, Id. at 338, but it is unclear from the worksheet whether Dr.
Anglade actually worked at “Brooklyn Hospital” and how the state agency made that connection.
Plaintiff never noted a connection between Dr. Anglade and Brooklyn Hospital in her disability
report. Id.; see generally, Id. at 195-96; 206-07. Moreover, the disability worksheet contains no
notes for Dr. Anglade, whereas other treating sources were given various disposition notes
indicating the status of their requests for records (e.g., “did not respond to our requests,” “report
was received,” “has no medical records available,” etc.). The disability worksheet appears
incomplete, there is no evidence that ALJ reached out to Dr. Anglade to fill this material gap, and
none of Dr. Anglade’s notes or opinions are contained in the record.
The Commissioner contends that the record contained sufficient evidence from other
physicians who treated Plaintiff for her alleged impairments, and, therefore, it was unnecessary for
the Commissioner to seek medical records and an opinion from Dr. Anglade in particular. See
generally, Def. Mem. at 13-16. However, the Commissioner’s regulations clearly state otherwise.
First, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(d) provides that the Commissioner will make “every reasonable effort
to help you get medical reports from your own medical source when you give us permission to
request the reports.” Id. Second, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(b)(6) provides that “a treating source's
medical report should include ‘[a] statement about what [the claimant] can still do despite [his or
her] impairment(s).’” Robins, 2011 WL 2446371, at *3.
Dr. Anglade’s records are significant in light of the conflicting medical assessments and
notes from Drs. Storey, Shtock, Katzman, Hecht, and Turtel, all doctors who assessed Plaintiff’s
limitations once or, at most, a few times. Dr. Anglade’s records would have helped resolve these
inconsistencies. Dr. Anglade is identified throughout the record as Plaintiff’s primary care
physician. See, e.g., R. at 195-96, 206-07, 230, 237, 240, 302. Plaintiff indicated that Dr. Anglade
has been her primary physician since the 1990s, and she continued to see him throughout 2012,
before and after her disability onset date, noting appointments in June, August, and September of
2012. Id. at 195-96, 206-07. Dr. Anglade prescribed medication for Plaintiff’s hypertension,
diabetes, high cholesterol, and pain, including Tramadol for her knee pain. Id. at 58, 195, 206-07.
He treated Plaintiff for “all of [her] conditions.” Id.
Given Dr. Anglade’s long standing relationship with the Plaintiff, longer than any other
doctor in the record, there is no dispute that the ALJ should have rendered his decision with the
benefit of Dr. Anglade’s notes and opinion. The ALJ was bound to make “make every reasonable
effort” to help Plaintiff obtain Dr. Anglade’s records, and yet the record is bereft of any indication
that the ALJ independently, whether by a post-hearing subpoena or otherwise, sought medical
records from Dr. Anglade. See generally, Id. It was insufficient for the ALJ to ask Plaintiff’s
counsel at her hearing whether the record was complete and to rely on counsel’s affirmative
response. Id. at 44. The ALJ still maintains the duty to develop the record fully, and this burden
does not shift to the Plaintiff. The ALJ should have been cognizant that documents concerning
Dr. Anglade’s treatment of Plaintiff remained outstanding.
Even if the ALJ was in possession of Plaintiff’s complete medical history and notes, which
he was not, for the reasons stated above, courts have found that “[a]djudicators are generally
required to request that acceptable medical sources provide . . . [RFC] statements with their
medical reports.” Steinhart, 2013 WL 5519959, at *5 (quoting Johnson v. Astrue, 811 F.Supp.2d
618, 630 (E.D.N.Y. 2011)). Treating physician opinions are to be sought and given deference
because “[t]o obtain from a treating physician nothing more than charts and laboratory test results
is to undermine the distinctive quality of the treating physician that makes his evidence so much
more reliable than that of an examining physician who sees the claimant once and who performs
the same tests and studies as the treating physician.” Peed v. Sullivan, 778 F. Supp. 1241
Thus, the ALJ’s failure to seek Dr. Anglade’s medical opinion, on its own, also is error.
See Robins, 2011 WL 2446371, at *3 (noting that the regulations provide that although a lack of a
RFC assessment will not render a report incomplete, the Commissioner is required nonetheless to
make a request in the first place); Johnson, 811 F. Supp.2d at 630 (concluding that the ALJ’s
failure to request the treating physician’s RFC opinion, despite possessing the claimant’s complete
medical history, warranted remand); Mallard v. Astrue, 2012 WL 580529, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Feb.
22, 2012) (remanding for failure to develop the record where the ALJ did not obtain RFC opinions
from the treating physician or urge the plaintiff to obtain them herself).
The Court concludes that the ALJ failed to obtain Plaintiff’s complete medical history and
treating physician assessments, and remands this matter to provide the ALJ the opportunity to do
so. See Steinhart v. Astrue, 2013 WL 5519959, at *4-5 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2013) (remanding
where the ALJ failed to assist Plaintiff in obtaining, or ever advised Plaintiff in obtaining, medical
records from a treating physician). The ALJ shall reevaluate Plaintiff’s disability claim in light of
this additional evidence.
2. Motion to Strike Supplemental Administrative Record
On March 18, 2016, the Commissioner filed a supplemental record containing a “disability
development and documentation” request dated July 23, 2012, from the New York State Office of
Temporary and Disability Assistance to Dr. Anglade at “Brooklyn Hosp Community Care.” See
Supplemental Administrative Record (“Suppl. R.”), Dkt. Entry No. 12, at 358-361. The request
sought Plaintiff’s treatment records from Dr. Anglade for the period of January 1, 2010 to July 23,
2012 in connection with her application for disability benefits. Id. The bottom of the document
redacted voucher instructions for a treating source to receive payment. Id. at 358. On March 28,
2016, Plaintiff moved to strike the supplemental record on three grounds: (1) the supplemental
record had been altered or was incomplete; (2) it was not part of the electronic administrative
record made available to Plaintiff’s counsel by the Appeals Council; and (3) it did not prove that
the Commissioner fulfilled his duty to develop Plaintiff’s medical records. See generally, Pl.’s
Mot. to Strike, Dkt. Entry No. 13.
The Court grants Plaintiff’s motion to strike on three grounds. First, the Commissioner
fails to explain properly why a portion of the supplemental transcript was redacted, when identical
documents found throughout the certified administrative record contained no such redaction. See,
e.g., R. at 321. While payment instructions ultimately may have no bearing on the determination
of Plaintiff’s disabilities, the Commissioner’s explanation, or lack thereof, as to why the document
was redacted or altered is inadequate.
Second, there is no indication that this document was part of the certified administrative
record that was before either the ALJ or Appeals Council. See generally, R. at 34-37. The
Commissioner’s broad assertion that “the ALJ had to rely on the information contained in the
supplemental transcript in order to make his decision” is unfounded, as the ALJ’s decision is
completely devoid of any mention of Dr. Anglade even though he should have been aware of the
doctor’s relationship with Plaintiff as her primary physician. See Mem. of Law in Opp. to Pl.’s
Mot. to Strike the Suppl. R., Dkt. Entry No. 15, at 2-3. The state agency’s disability worksheet
contained no notes for Dr. Anglade, and, consequently, the status of these two requests to Dr.
Anglade would have been unknown to the ALJ and the Appeals Council. R. at 338.
Moreover, the Commissioner’s reference to Cross v. Astrue, is misplaced. 2010 WL
2399379 (N.D.N.Y. May 24, 2010), report and recommendation adopted, 2010 WL 2399346
(N.D.N.Y. June 10, 2010).
In Cross, the Court held the Commissioner’s inclusion of a
supplemental certified administrative record was proper because the document was “inadvertently
omitted from the original” certified record. 2010 WL 2399379, at *2. In other words, the omitted
document indeed had been part of the original certified record. The court found that, not only did
the Commissioner’s procedure manual for appeals contemplate this potential issue, but the
Commissioner in Cross also provided a certification and declaration explaining that the
supplemental letter inadvertently had been omitted from the original administrative record. Id.
Here, there is no evidence that the supplemental transcript was part of the original certified
administrative record, and there is no equivalent certification or declaration to explain that this
document was part of the original record.
A reviewing court is limited to reviewing the administrative record that was before the
agency and formed the basis for the agency's decision. Cross, 2010 WL 2399379, at *3 (citing
Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. Costle, 657 F.2d 275, 284 (D.C. Cir. 1981) (“It is well settled
that judicial review of agency action is normally confined to the full administrative record before
the agency at the time the decision was made . . . . [and] not some new record completed initially
in the reviewing court.”)); see also State of New York v. Shalala, 1996 WL 87240, at *5 (S.D.N.Y.
Feb. 29, 1996) (“Judicial review of agency action is generally limited to review of the full
administrative record that was before the agency at the time it rendered its decision.”) (citing
Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 420 (1971)). Generally, if an
administrative record does not support the agency action, or if a reviewing court cannot evaluate
the challenged agency action on the basis of the record before it, the court is to remand to the
agency for additional investigation, rather than admit new evidence. Shalala, 1996 WL 87240, at
*5. Therefore, a court may strike materials submitted to the court “on an appeal from agency
action that were not part of the administrative record on which the challenged agency action was
Third, the Court is not persuaded that the supplemental record is evidence that the ALJ
properly requested medical records from Dr. Anglade and fulfilled his duty to develop the record.
The supplemental record only shows that a request was made from the state agency to Dr. Anglade
on July 23, 2012, when Plaintiff’s initial application for disability benefits was under
consideration. The record contains no other evidence that the ALJ himself made a follow up
request to address the omission of Dr. Anglade’s records from the administrative record.
Moreover, the supplemental transcript is incomplete and is missing documentation of the alleged
second request made to Dr. Anglade from the state agency, dated August 6, 2012. Cf. R. at 33843; R. at 358-61.
Accordingly, the Court grants Plaintiff’s motion to strike the supplemental record.
3. Plaintiff’s Remaining Arguments
Plaintiff’s remaining contentions are that the ALJ failed to review Listing 1.08 for soft
tissue injuries, improperly applied the treating physician rule in giving little weight to the opinions
of Drs. Storey and Turtel, and improperly determined her RFC and credibility without substantial
evidence. See Pl Mem. at 17-23. Because the Court has determined that remand is appropriate to
fully develop the record upon which the Listings, treating physician opinions, and RFC and
credibility assessments are based, it need not and does not consider the remaining arguments. See
Rosa, 168 F.3d at 82 n.7 (“Because we have concluded that the ALJ was incorrect in her
assessment of the medical evidence, we cannot accept her conclusion regarding . . . credibility.”);
Wilson v. Colvin, 107 F. Supp.3d 387, 407 n.34 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) (since the ALJ failed to develop
the record, the Commissioner must “necessarily” reassess a claimant’s RFC and credibility on
remand); Rivera v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 728 F. Supp.2d 297, 331 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (“Because I
find legal error requiring remand, I need not consider whether the ALJ’s decision was otherwise
supported by substantial evidence.”) (internal citations omitted). On remand, the ALJ shall
elaborate on these remaining arguments raised by Plaintiff.
[INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]
For the foregoing reasons, the Plaintiff’s motion to strike the Supplemental Record filed
by the Commissioner and motion for judgment on the pleadings are granted, and the
Commissioner’s cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied. Accordingly, the decision
of the Commissioner is reversed, and this matter is remanded to the Commissioner pursuant to the
fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further administrative proceedings consistent with this
If Plaintiff’s benefits remain denied, the Commissioner is directed to render a final decision
within sixty (60) days of Plaintiff’s appeal, if any. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 387 (2d
Cir. 2004) (suggesting procedural time limits to ensure speedy disposition of Social Security cases
upon remand by district courts).
Dated: Brooklyn, New York
March 31, 2017
DORA L. IRIZARRY
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