Smith v. Colvin
ORDER granting 10 Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings to the extent that this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with this decision and order; and denying 12 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Clerk to close case.) Signed by Hon. Michael A. Telesca on 2/7/2017. (JMC)-CLERK TO FOLLOW UP-
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
No. 1:16-CV-00295 (MAT)
DECISION AND ORDER
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
Represented by counsel, Michael Smith (“plaintiff”) brings
this action pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security
Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his
supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Court has jurisdiction
over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before
the Court are the parties’ cross-motions for judgment on the
pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiff’s motion is
Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with
this decision and order.
The record reveals that in August 2013, plaintiff (d/o/b
December 12, 1965) applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as
of August 10, 2012. After his application was denied, plaintiff
requested a hearing, which was held before administrative law judge
Robert T. Harvey (“the ALJ”) on August 13, 2014. The ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision on August 21, 2014. The Appeals Council denied
review of the ALJ’s decision and this timely action followed.
III. The ALJ’s Decision
Initially, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through March 31, 2016. At step one of the
five-step sequential evaluation process, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
416.920, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since August 10, 2012, the alleged
onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from
the severe impairments of status post left shoulder reconstruction,
substance disorder, and discogenic cervical spine. At step three,
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed
impairment. In considering plaintiff’s mental impairments, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily
living (“ADLs”) and maintaining concentration, persistence, or
pace, and moderate difficulties in social functioning.
limitations on plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”):
“occasional limitations in the ability to understand, remember and
carry out detailed instructions; occasional limitations in the
ability to interact appropriately with the public; occasional
limitations in the ability to deal with stress; and occasional
limitations in the ability to make decisions.” T. 22. At step four,
the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant
work. At step five, the ALJ determined that considering plaintiff’s
significant numbers in the national economy which plaintiff could
determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual
findings are not supported by “substantial evidence” or if the
decision is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also
Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003).
“Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Shaw v.
Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000).
Plaintiff’s sole contention is that the ALJ’s RFC assessment
conflicts with the relevant medical opinions regarding plaintiff’s
mental limitations. The record reveals that plaintiff was treated
at Lakeshore Behavioral Health from approximately July 2013 through
Donaldson, LMHC, submitted a mental RFC questionnaire in September
2013, reporting that plaintiff suffered from bipolar disorder and
antisocial personality disorder. However, LMHC Donaldson declined
to fill out any of the functional areas of the form. On August 1,
2014, LMHC Donaldson submitted a letter, stating that he declined
to give a functional assessment because he did “not not observe or
have any opportunity to determine how [plaintiff] responds in a
work environment.” T. 431.
On October 16, 2013, state agency psychologist Dr. Susan
Dr. Santarpia opined that plaintiff “present[ed] as able to follow
and understand simple directions and instructions, perform simple
tasks independently, maintain attention and concentration, maintain
a regular schedule, and learn new tasks within normal limits.”
T. 354. According to Dr. Santarpia, plaintiff demonstrated mild
appropriately dealing with stress,” and moderate impairment “in
making appropriate decisions and relating adequately with others.”
T. 354-55. She opined that plaintiff’s “[d]ifficulties [were]
caused by distractibility.” Id.
In a mental RFC assessment performed by reviewing psychologist
Dr. Joel Straussner, Dr. Straussner opined that plaintiff was
moderately limited in interacting with coworkers and the general
public. Dr. Straussner additionally opined, as relevant here, that
plaintiff was moderately limited in accepting instructions and
responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, as well as
getting along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or
causing behavioral extremes.
opinion, stating specifically that he gave little weight to her
opinion that plaintiff’s prognosis was “guarded, as the record
reflect[ed] that the claimant’s condition could improve when he
plaintiff less than fully credible as to his allegations of mental
health limitations, citing Dr. Santarpia’s unremarkable findings on
Dr. Santarpia’s findings with plaintiff’s mental health treatment
record, during which plaintiff was assessed with, at most, moderate
symptoms as indicated by GAF scores.1 The ALJ did not explicitly
weigh Dr. Straussner’s opinion, but found that it was “consistent
with [plaintiff’s] medical record, including the assessed GAF score
of 55 and consistent with [the ALJ’s RFC finding].” T. 30.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ’s RFC finding was inconsistent
with the opinions of Drs. Santarpia and Straussner. Specifically,
plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error in finding
occasional limitations in dealing only with the general public, as
opposed to finding limitations in dealing with the general public
as well as with coworkers and supervisors. As noted above, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had occasional limitations in the ability to
See See generally American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM–IV”), at 34 (4th ed. rev. 2000)
(describing global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) scoring). Scores between 51
and 60 indicate moderate symptoms, such as flat affect, circumlocutory speech,
occasional panic attacks, or moderate difficulty in social, occupational, or
school functioning. See id.
limitations in interacting appropriately with the public, and
occasional limitations in dealing with stress and making decisions.
As plaintiff points out, a limitation in interacting with the
public is not equivalent to a limitation interacting with coworkers
or supervisors. See, e.g., Nickens v. Colvin, 2014 WL 4792197, *2
(W.D. Pa. Sept. 23, 2014) (“The public, supervisors, and co-workers
Defendant’s mental residual capacity forms. Thus, limitations on
two of these types of interactions in the RFC does not account for
limitations on the third.”); see also Tilles v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 2015 WL 1454919, *4 n.5 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2015) (recognizing
that “[a] limitation to interacting with co-workers and supervisors
. . . on the one hand is not the same as a limitation with just
interacting with coworkers,” but distinguishing the facts of the
case cited for that proposition) (citing Medley v. Astrue, 2011 WL
6840576 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 29, 2011)).
Moreover, a close review of this record reveals that the ALJ
understood that these social groups were distinct. At plaintiff’s
hearing, the ALJ posed a hypothetical question to the vocational
expert (“VE”) and recited the RFC ultimately found in the ALJ’s
decision; the VE responded that an individual with such limitations
could perform the jobs of mail clerk or small products assembler.
However, when the ALJ added nonexertional limitations to the
hypothetical, including, among others, limitations in ability to
respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors and getting
along with coworkers or peers, the VE responded that such an
individual could not perform any work. It is unclear whether the
VE’s response to the second hypothetical turned on limitations in
interaction with coworkers or supervisors, whether it was based on
other additional limitations given in the second hypothetical, or
whether it hinged on some combination of the two. Cf. Nickens, 2014
WL 4792197, at *2 (noting that where hypothetical failed to include
“infect[ed] the hypothetical to the vocational expert”).
The ALJ’s decision failed to explain why he rejected the
limitations opined by Drs. Santarpia and Straussner regarding
plaintiff’s ability to get along with others. This error is not
harmless because it frustrates the Court’s ability to perform
meaningful review, and because it appears, from the VE’s testimony,
that the outcome of this case could change with inclusion of
additional social limitations. See, e.g., Raymer v. Colvin, 2015 WL
5032669, *6 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2015) (quoting Dioguardi v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec., 445 F. Supp. 2d 288, 298 (“With no explanation
provided, it is not possible for the [c]ourt to know why . . . the
ALJ chose to disregard the evidence that was more favorable to
plaintiff’s claim[;][h]er failure to reconcile the RFC assessment
with medical source statements was error, and based upon the
testimony given by the vocational expert, the failure was not
harmless”); Newsome v. Astrue, 817 F. Supp. 2d 111, 134 (E.D.N.Y.
2011) (“Although applying the wrong legal standard might not
require reversal if the error did not affect the outcome, that is
not the situation here.”).
Accordingly, this case is reversed and remanded for further
administrative proceedings consistent with this decision and order.
On remand, if the ALJ elects to reject any portions of the medical
opinion evidence, he is directed to explain why those portions were
rejected and how the substantial evidence of record supports his
ultimate RFC determination.
For the foregoing reasons, the Commissioner’s motion for
judgment on the pleadings (Doc. 12) is denied and plaintiff’s
motion (Doc. 10) is granted to the extent that this matter is
remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings
consistent with this decision and order. The Clerk of the Court is
directed to close this case.
ALL OF THE ABOVE IS SO ORDERED.
S/Michael A. Telesca
HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA
United States District Judge
February 7, 2017
Rochester, 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?