Snyder v. Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDERED, that the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. Signed by Senior Judge Lawrence E. Kahn on January 5, 2017. (sas)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
This case has proceeded in accordance with General Order 18, which sets forth the
procedures to be followed in appealing a denial of Social Security benefits. Both parties have
filed briefs. Dkt. Nos. 9 (“Plaintiff’s Brief”), 10 (“Defendant’s Brief”). For the following reasons,
the judgment of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) is affirmed.
Plaintiff Cheryl Snyder was born on October 9, 1971. Dkt. No. 8 (“Record”) at 81.
Snyder claims that she became disabled on April 30, 2013, as a result of several physical and
mental ailments, including back pain, depression, anxiety, headaches, and a history of chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). Pl.’s Br. at 5.
Snyder is divorced and has two children in their twenties. R. at 57. She completed the
tenth grade, but she never graduated from high school and never received a GED. Id. at 56.
Snyder has work experience as a telemarketer and a cashier at Walmart, id. at 38–40, and was
most recently employed as a front desk clerk for a hotel, id. at 308, but she quit that job because
“she was getting very stressed out,” id. at 58. Since leaving her hotel job in April 2013, Snyder
has been unemployed. Pl.’s Br. at 5.1 She lives alone in a motel, but she has a boyfriend. Id. at 57,
60. She watches television, cooks for herself, and drives to the grocery store and to doctors’
appointments. Id. at 61–63, 315. She is able to cook, clean, and do laundry if she does these
chores slowly and takes frequent breaks. Id. at 311. Although she has a strained relationship with
her children, id. at 311, her daughter helps her with laundry, id. at 62. She reports having a few
friends and that her best friend is her mother, whom she visits three times a week. Id. at 311.
On July 23, 2013, Snyder filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title
II and Supplemental Security income payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act,
alleging disability beginning April 30, 2013. Id. at 83. The claim was initially denied on October
8, 2013, and Snyder requested a hearing. Id. at 107, 117. On February 18 and March 19, 2015,
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Robert Wright held a hearing at which Snyder appeared with
her attorney. Id. at 35, 52. ALJ Wright subsequently issued an unfavorable decision, id. at 17, and
on November 13, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Snyder’s request for review, id. at 1. Snyder
timely filed the instant action seeking review of the final agency decision. Dkt. No. 1
A. Medical History
Snyder has a history of thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (“TTP”), a blood disease
for which she claims to have been hospitalized for nearly a year, but her TPP is in remission. R.
at 314. Snyder has received no treatment for TPP during the period of alleged disability and does
Although Snyder briefly worked as a personal aide after the alleged onset date, the ALJ
found that that job “did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.” R. at 22.
not appear to make any complaints related to the issue. Id. at 22. Therefore, the ALJ found the
impairment nonsevere with no evidence of work-related limitations. Id. at 23. The ALJ did,
however, find several severe impairments, including morbid obesity, anxiety disorder, affective
disorder, headaches/migraines, and a history of COPD. Id. at 22. Snyder appeals the ALJ’s
decision denying benefits because of his alleged failure to properly account for her depression
and anxiety; Snyder does not object to the ALJ’s determination regarding her physical ability to
work. See Pl.’s Br. Therefore, this review of the medical evidence will focus primarily on
Snyder’s depression and anxiety.
The earliest medical visit included in the record is Snyder’s July 12, 2013 visit with her
primary care physician, Dr. John Novak. The treatment notes indicate that Snyder appeared
“well, alert, oriented x 3, [and] in no distress.” R. at 292. Dr. Novak also noted that Snyder’s
“mood, behavior, affect and thought process [were] normal.” Id. Snyder appears to have
undergone a thorough physical examination including a variety of diagnostic testing, but there
was minimal examination of mental health issues. Dr. Novak included depression and anxiety on
Snyder’s “problem list,” and Snyder’s list of prescriptions included antidepressants and antianxiety medication. Id. at 288–89. On the other hand, Dr. Novak noted that Snyder “denie[d]
anxiety or depression.” Id. at 292.
On October 11, 2013, Snyder saw Dr. Joseph Prezio for a consultative internal medicine
examination. After an extensive physical examination, Dr. Prezio determined that “the claimant
does not appear to have any significant physical limitations or restrictions at this time.” Id.
at 315. Dr. Prezio did, however, note that Snyder would need to avoid smoke, dust, and other
respiratory irritants because of her history of COPD. Id. at 317. Dr. Prezio also diagnosed Snyder
with “severe mental issues that need continued addressing” and he “strongly recommended that
the entire psychological overview of the claimant be reviewed.” Id.
Also on October 11, 2013, Snyder received a consultative psychiatric evaluation from
Brett T. Hartman, Psy. D. Id. at 308–12. Snyder reported that she had received mental health
services in the past, but that she discontinued those services after becoming “frustrated with the
counselor.”2 Id. at 308. Instead of seeing a specialist, Snyder received medication for mental
health issues through Dr. Novak, her primary care provider. Id. Snyder endorsed a variety of
symptoms of depression, including social isolation, crying spells, irritability, and sadness. Id. She
also claimed to experience anxiety and daily panic attacks—which brought on palpitations,
breathing difficulties, sweating, and trembling—that were more frequent in public settings. Id.
at 309. Dr. Hartman found that Snyder had moderate problems relating adequately with others
and dealing appropriately with the normal stressors of life. Id. at 310. All other limitations were
found to be mild. Id.
Dr. Hartman noted that Snyder’s thought process was coherent and goal directed, her
intellectual functioning appeared to be in the average range, and that she was alert and oriented
times three. Id. He also found that Snyder’s judgment was fair, that she was able to follow and
understand simple directions, and that she had a fair ability to learn new tasks. Ultimately,
Dr. Hartman diagnosed Snyder with “major depressive disorder, moderate to severe, without
psychotic features,” and “panic disorder without agoraphobia,” with a “fair to guarded”
Snyder told Dr. Hartman that she had last received mental health services in 2012, R. at
308, but she testified in front of the ALJ that she last saw a psychologist when she was twentyfive years old, id. at 59. Since it is not clear how to resolve this conflict, the Court concludes only
that Snyder has not received mental health services since the date that she reportedly became
prognosis. Id. at 311. Dr. Hartman also recommended that Snyder take part in individual
counseling. Id. at 311.
On October 8, 2013, state agency psychological consultant Dr. J. Ambrocia reviewed
Snyder’s medical records, including those provided by Drs. Novak, Prezio, and Hartman.
Although Dr. Ambrocia found that Snyder was obese, had marked leg tremors, and had
environmental limitations due to asthma, he noted no exertional limitations in his physical
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. Id. at 89. Dr. Ambrocia’s mental RFC
assessment found that Snyder was moderately limited in her ability to respond appropriately to
changes in the work setting, to interact appropriately with the general public, and to complete a
normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. Id.
at 90–91. Dr. Ambrocia found that Snyder was not significantly limited in all other areas that he
analyzed, including her ability to carry out detailed instructions, to maintain concentration, to
make simple work-related decisions, and to work in coordination with others. Id.
Dr. Ambrocia determined that Snyder’s reported symptoms of anxiety and depression
were partially credible. Id. at 103. Although he found “some support for psychiatric difficulties,”
he also determined that they resulted in “no greater than moderate limitations.” Id. Dr. Ambrocia
opined that Snyder would be able to handle brief and superficial contact with coworkers and to
handle ordinary levels of supervision in the work setting. Id. at 103. Based on the documented
findings, Dr. Ambrocia determined that Snyder was not disabled. Id. at 105. Dr. Ambrocia did,
however, recommend an additional consultative examination in order to obtain “specialized
medical evidence.” Id. at 87.
The specialized medical evidence requested by Dr. Ambrocia does not appear in the
record, but Snyder visited Dr. Novak several more times after Dr. Ambrocia’s review of the
record. At a May 6, 2014 appointment, Snyder complained primarily of headaches, but also of
increased anxiety and depression. Id. at 328. Snyder also saw Dr. Novak appears on June 2, 2014,
and her primary complaint was increased abdominal pain, which Dr. Novak diagnosed as
pancreatitis. Id. at 333. At a follow-up visit three days later, Snyder was more focused on her
anxiety and depression, but Snyder refused Dr. Novak’s suggestion of counseling and was “much
less anxious and much less depressed” by the end of the exam. Id. at 336.
In a medical source statement dated June 17, 2014, Dr. Novak found that Snyder had
minimal physical restrictions. Id. at 345–350. He did, however, note that her Snyder “has severe
depression and anxiety that limits her functioning severely. At this time she is unable to work
secondary to her depression/anxiety.” Id. at 350. Dr. Novak provided a second medical source
statement on February 25, 2015, that was focused on Snyder’s restrictions in work-related
activities based on her mental health. Id. at 355. Unlike Drs. Hartman and Ambrocia, Dr. Novak
found that Snyder had marked limitations in her ability to make judgments on complex workrelated decisions and to respond appropriately to usual work situations. Id. at 355. Dr. Novak also
provided a letter dated February 19, 2015, stating that Snyder was unable to work due to her
depression and social anxiety. Id. 352.
A. Standard of Review
When a court reviews a final decision by the SSA, it determines whether the ALJ applied
the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the
record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Roat v. Barnhart, 717 F. Supp. 2d 241, 248 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (Kahn,
J.) (citing Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982)). Substantial evidence amounts
to “more than a mere scintilla,” and it must reasonably support the decision maker’s conclusion.
Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971)). The Court defers to the ALJ’s decision if it is supported by substantial
evidence, “even if [the Court] might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo
review.” Sixberry v. Colvin, No. 12-CV-1231, 2013 WL 5310209, at *3 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 20,
2013) (quoting Valente v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir.
1984)). The Court should not uphold the ALJ’s decision when there is substantial evidence, but it
is not clear that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983,
986 (2d Cir. 1987). However, remand is unnecessary “where application of the correct legal
principles to the record could lead to only one conclusion.” Id. The Court may not “affirm an
administrative action on grounds different from those considered by the agency.” Melville v.
Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194 (1947)).
B. Standard for Benefits
According to SSA regulations, disability is “the inability to do any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be
expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period
of not less than 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). However, an individual seeking disability
benefits “need not be completely helpless or unable to function.” De Leon v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs., 734 F.2d 930, 935 (2d Cir. 1984) (quoting Gold v. Sec’y of Health, Educ. &
Welfare, 463 F.2d 38, 41 n.6 (2d Cir. 1972)).
In order to receive disability benefits, a claimant must satisfy the requirements set forth in
the SSA’s five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). In the first four
steps, the claimant bears the burden of proof; at step five, the burden shifts to the SSA. Kohler v.
Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir.
1996)). If the SSA is able to determine that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any step,
the evaluation ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Otherwise, the SSA will proceed to the next
At step one, the SSA considers the claimant’s current work activity to see if it amounts to
“substantial gainful activity.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If it does, the claimant is not disabled under
SSA standards. Id. At step two, the SSA considers whether the claimant has a severe and
medically determinable physical or mental impairment—or a combination of impairments that is
severe—that meets the duration requirement in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If
he or she does not have such an impairment, the claimant is not disabled under SSA standards.
Id. At step three, the SSA considers the severity of the claimant’s medically determinable
physical or mental impairment(s) to see if it meets or equals an impairment and the requisite
duration listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404(P), app. 1. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If it meets one of these
listed impairments and durations, the claimant is disabled.
If, following step three, no disability determination has been made, the SSA must
determine the claimant’s RFC, meaning the most work the claimant is able to do given her
impairments and other limitations. Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545. Then, under step four, the
claimant is not disabled if the RFC reveals that the claimant can perform her past relevant work.
Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform any past relevant work, the SSA decides
at step five whether adjustments can be made to allow the claimant to work somewhere in a
different capacity. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If appropriate work does not exist, then the SSA
considers the claimant to be disabled. Id.
A. Treating Physician Rule
An ALJ must give a treating physician’s opinion controlling weight if it “is well-
supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [a claimant’s] record.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(c)(2). Snyder argues that the ALJ erred in refusing to give controlling weight to the
opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Novak. Pl.’s Br. at 10. First, in a February 25, 2015
medical source statement, Dr. Novak opined that Snyder had marked restrictions in her ability to
make judgments on complex work-related decisions and to respond appropriately to usual work
situations and to changes in a routine work setting. R. at 355–56. The ALJ, however, afforded
little weight to Dr. Novak’s opinion and found that there was no support in the record for marked
limitations. Id. at 27. Second, Dr. Novak opined that Snyder would be unable to work due to her
severe depression and anxiety, id. at 350, 352, but the ALJ “afforded little weight to [that]
unexplained and vague opinion,” id. at 26. The ALJ was entitled to determine that Dr. Novak’s
opinions should not be given controlling weight.
A treating physician’s opinion need not be “afforded controlling weight where . . . the
treating physician issued opinions that are not consistent with other substantial evidence in the
record.” Halloran, 362 F.3d at 32. If an ALJ does not grant controlling weight to a treating
physician’s opinion, she must set forth her reasons with specificity, and she must examine the
(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 (xv) other factors brought to the Social Security
Administration’s attention that tend to support or contradict the
Beckwith v. Colvin, No. 13-CV-1095, 2015 WL 799865, at *9 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 25, 2015) (citing
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)).
When formulating Snyder’s RFC, the ALJ considered each of the above factors in
deciding to assign little weight to Dr. Novak’s opinion regarding Snyder’s marked limitations
and disability status. First, although Dr. Novak has been Snyder’s primary care physician since at
least July 2013, Snyder’s visits were inconsistent and some of those visits did not include mental
status evaluations. R. at 27–28. Indeed, Snyder appears to have received no treatment from Dr.
Novak between July 2013 and May 2014, and again between June 2014 and February 2015. Id.
at 25. The ALJ found that the infrequent nature of Snyder’s visits was inconsistent with the
alleged severity of her symptoms. Id.; see also Moore v. Astrue, No. 11-CV-952, 2013 WL
935855, at *10 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 5, 2013) (“A claimant may be deemed ‘less credible if the level
or frequency of treatment is inconsistent with the level of complaints . . . .’” (quoting SSR 96-7p,
1996 WL 374186, at *8)).
Second, although the ALJ found that Snyder’s depression and anxiety were severe
impairments, he also found that the evidence did not show that those impairments rendered
Snyder unable to work. R. at 25. Where a medically determinable impairment is found, the ALJ
“must then evaluate the intensity and persistence of [a claimant’s] symptoms so that so that [the
ALJ] can determine how [the] symptoms limit [the claimant’s] capacity for work.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1529(c)(1). The ALJ found that Snyder’s statements about the symptoms of her depression
and anxiety—and the limiting effects of those symptoms—were not entirely credible. R. at 25.
Credibility is a matter best left to the sound discretion of the ALJ, and an ALJ’s credibility
determination will not be disturbed so long as it is supported by substantial evidence. Monette v.
Colvin, No. 15-3399, 2016 WL 3639510, at *2 (2d Cir. July 7, 2016). Here, for the reasons
outlined below, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s credibility determination.
Third, the ALJ found that Dr. Novak’s opinion regarding Snyder’s limitations was not
consistent with the record as a whole. R. at 27–28. The ALJ found that Plaintiff showed only
mild restrictions in her activities of daily living and moderate difficulties in social functioning.
Id. at 23. He also pointed to Snyder’s treatment record with Dr. Novak, which shows inconsistent
reports regarding depression and anxiety. Id. at 25–26. Snyder denied depression and anxiety
during a July 2013 visit. Id. at 292. Dr. Novak recommended counseling during a June 2014
appointment, but Snyder decided against counseling and reported feeling “much less anxious and
much less depressed” by the end of the appointment. Id. Dr. Hartman also recommended that
Snyder seek individual counseling, id. at 312, but she refused to do so because her last visit to a
psychologist led to an anxiety attack, id. at 59. The ALJ noted that Snyder’s claims relating to
that anxiety attack and to her frequent panic attacks are not supported by any evidence in the
record; there is no evidence of emergency room visits, specialized therapy, or third-party
corroboration of any kind. Id. at 25. The ALJ found that Snyder’s infrequent visits to her primary
care doctor and her refusal to seek specialized mental health treatment suggest much less severe
symptoms and difficulties than those alleged by Snyder. Id. at 26; see also Snyder v. Colvin, No.
15-3502, 2016 WL 3570107, at *2 (2d Cir. June 30, 2016) (finding that the ALJ was permitted to
consider the claimant’s lack of formal mental health treatment in assessing her credibility where
the claimant only received medication and treatment for depression from her primary care
In deciding to give little weight to Dr. Novak’s opinion, the ALJ decided instead to give
great weight to the opinions of Drs. Hartman and Dambrocia, which the ALJ determined to be
more compatible with Snyder’s poor treatment record and Dr. Hartman’s mental status
evaluation. R. at 28; see also Paulino v. Colvin, No. 13-CV-3718, 2014 WL 2120544, at *18
(S.D.N.Y. May 13, 2014) (finding that the ALJ was not required to give controlling weight to a
treating psychiatrist’s disability determination, particularly where it was inconsistent with other
medical evidence showing that the claimant’s limitations were mild). Instead of adopting Dr.
Novak’s findings of marked limitations in Snyder’s ability to make judgments on complex workrelated decisions and to respond appropriately to usual work situations, the ALJ adopted the
findings of Drs. Hartman and Dambrocia that Snyder had only mild and moderate limitations. Id.
at 27–28. The ALJ was permitted to make that determination. See Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d
117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (a treating physician’s medical opinion will generally not be afforded
controlling weight where it conflicts with the opinions of other medical experts because conflicts
in medical evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve).
Fourth, the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Novak’s opinion because he is a primary care
doctor, not a specialist in depression, anxiety, or mental health disorders. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.927(d)(5) (“We generally give more weight to the opinion of a specialist about medical
issues related to his area of specialty than to the opinion of a source who is not a specialist.”); see
also Canales v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 698 F. Supp. 2d 335, 343 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (finding that the
claimant’s primary care doctor did not have training in the medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory techniques needed to render a diagnosis of depression that was entitled to be treated as
a controlling opinion).
Although Dr. Novak determined that Snyder is disabled due to her depression and
anxiety, the ALJ was entitled to disregard that conclusion because the final decision regarding
disability is reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). “That means that the
Social Security Administration considers the data that physicians provide but draws its own
conclusions. A treating physician’s statement that the claimant is disabled cannot itself be
determinative.” Snell v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 128, 133 (2d Cir. 1999). While it may have been
appropriate for the ALJ to seek additional information explaining Dr. Novak’s “unexplained and
vague” opinion regarding disability, see Munoz v. Colvin, No. 13-CV-1269, 2014 WL 4449788,
at *13 (S.D.N.Y. Spet. 10, 2014) (“[W]here . . . the ALJ finds a treating physician’s opinion
lacking in support, he or she must seek additional information from the treating physician sua
sponte before rejecting his or her opinion.”), that issue is not before the Court.1
B. Environmental Restrictions
At the hearing, the ALJ asked the vocational expert, Ms. Heck, whether any jobs existed
Because Snyder failed to raise this claim in her brief, see Pl’s Br., the Court deems the
issue waived, Whipple v. Astrue, 479 F. App’x 367, 370 (2d. Cir. 2012) (“[Plaintiff] failed to
raise this claim before the magistrate judge or the district court. We therefore deem the issue
forfeited.”); Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (same); Norton v. Sam’s Club,
145 F.3d 114, 117 (2d Cir. 1998) (“Issues not sufficiently argued in the briefs are considered
waived and normally will not be addressed on appeal.”).
in the national economy for someone with Snyder’s RFC. R. at 43–50. Given the limitations
identified by the ALJ, Heck identified two occupations with job requirements that Snyder would
be able to perform: cleaner/housekeeper and photocopy machine operator. Id. at 29. Thus, the
ALJ determined that Snyder is not disabled because she could perform jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy. Id.
Snyder argues that even if the ALJ’s RFC determination were correct, he erred in
concluding that Snyder would be able to work as a cleaner/housekeeper or a photocopy machine
operator because those jobs “do not exist in a clean air environment,” which was a requirement
of Snyder’s RFC. Pl.’s Br. at 13. Snyder does not, however, provide a citation to any authority
supporting the proposition that the jobs of cleaner/housekeeper and photocopy machine operator
do not exist in a clean air environment.2 Id. In social security proceedings, the Commissioner
looks to certain governmental publications for reliable job information, including the Dictionary
of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), which is published by the Department of Labor. 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.966(d). According to the DOT, there are no environmental restrictions for either
cleaner/housekeeper or photocopy machine operator positions. Dep’t of Labor, Dictionary of
Occupational Titles, §§ 323.687-014, 207.685-014 (4th ed. 1991). Therefore, Snyder’s argument
that cleaner/housekeeper and photocopy machine operator “do not exist in a clean air
environment” is without merit.
In fact, the entire discussion section of Plaintiff’s Brief is devoid of citations to the
record or to any legal authority. The Court notes the difficulty of making persuasive legal
arguments without citing case law or the relevant statutes and regulations.
Accordingly, it is hereby:
ORDERED, that the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED; and it is further
ORDERED, that the Clerk of the Court serve a copy of this Memorandum-Decision and
Order on all parties in accordance with the Local Rules.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
January 05, 2017
Albany, New York
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?