Armstrong v. Berryhill
DECISION AND ORDER: Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings 12 is GRANTED, the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings 13 is DENIED, and this matter is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further administrative proceed ings. On remand, the Court directs the ALJ to obtain an updated medical opinion from Plaintiff's treating sources or to order another consultative psychiatric examination. Because Plaintiff filed his application nearly six years ago, the Court also directs the Commissioner to expedite the remand and review of this matter. The Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment and close this case. SO ORDERED. Signed by Hon. Frank P. Geraci, Jr. on 2/8/2018. (AFM)-CLERK TO FOLLOW UP-
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
JASON W. ARMSTRONG,
Case # 17-CV-6067-FPG
DECISION AND ORDER
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
Jason W. Armstrong brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”)
seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security that denied his
application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. ECF No. 1.
The Court has jurisdiction over this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Both parties moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(c). ECF Nos. 12, 13. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s motion is GRANTED,
the Commissioner’s motion is DENIED, and this matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.
On March 15, 2012, Armstrong protectively applied for SSI with the Social Security
Administration (“the SSA”). Tr. 1 165-70. He alleged disability since January 1, 2012 due to
scoliosis, high blood pressure, asthma, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, panic disorder,
depression, and substance abuse. Tr. 180. On February 14, 2013, Armstrong and a vocational
expert (“VE”) testified via videoconference before Administrative Law Judge William M. Manico
(“the ALJ”). Tr. 36-82. On April 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Armstrong was
References to “Tr.” are to the administrative record in this matter.
not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 11-32. On January 7, 2015, the Appeals Council
denied Armstrong’s request for review. Tr. 1-6. Armstrong appealed to this Court and his case
was remanded by stipulation to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings. See
Armstrong v. Colvin, 15-CV-6127-FPG, ECF Nos. 9, 10.
On July 26, 2016, Armstrong and a VE testified at a second hearing via videoconference
before the ALJ. Tr. 1023-56. On November 29, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that
Armstrong was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 990-1017. This became the
Commissioner’s final decision because the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction of the
case. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484 (a) (in cases remanded from district court for further proceedings,
the ALJ’s decision becomes the Commissioner’s final decision unless it assumes jurisdiction).
Thereafter, Armstrong commenced this action seeking review of the Commissioner’s final
decision. ECF No. 1.
District Court Review
“In reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited to determining whether the
SSA’s conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a
correct legal standard.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (quotation marks
omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Act holds that a decision by the Commissioner is
“conclusive” if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence
means more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moran v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 108, 112 (2d Cir. 2009)
(quotation marks omitted). It is not the Court’s function to “determine de novo whether [the
claimant] is disabled.” Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998) (quotation marks
omitted); see also Wagner v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990)
(holding that review of the Secretary’s decision is not de novo and that the Secretary’s findings are
conclusive if supported by substantial evidence).
An ALJ must follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is
disabled within the meaning of the Act. See Parker v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71
(1986). At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
work activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ
proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has an impairment, or combination of
impairments, that is “severe” within the meaning of the Act, meaning that it imposes significant
restrictions on the claimant’s ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If
the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the analysis
concludes with a finding of “not disabled.” If the claimant does, the ALJ continues to step three.
At step three, the ALJ examines whether a claimant’s impairment meets or medically
equals the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4 (the
“Listings”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of
a Listing and meets the durational requirement (20 C.F.R. § 404.1509), the claimant is disabled.
If not, the ALJ determines the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the ability
to perform physical or mental work activities on a sustained basis, notwithstanding limitations for
the collective impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).
The ALJ then proceeds to step four and determines whether the claimant’s RFC permits
him or her to perform the requirements of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
If the claimant can perform such requirements, then he or she is not disabled. If he or she cannot,
the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, wherein the burden shifts to the Commissioner to
show that the claimant is not disabled. To do so, the Commissioner must present evidence to
demonstrate that the claimant “retains a residual functional capacity to perform alternative
substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” in light of his or her age, education,
and work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (quotation marks
omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c).
The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ’s decision analyzed Armstrong’s claim for benefits under the process described
above. At step one, the ALJ found that Armstrong had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since the application date. Tr. 992. At step two, the ALJ found that Armstrong has the following
severe impairments: mild scoliosis, polysubstance abuse, and affective, anxiety, and personality
At step three, the ALJ found that these impairments, alone or in
combination, did not meet or medically equal any Listings impairment. Tr. 997-1000.
Next, the ALJ determined that Armstrong retains the RFC to perform light work 2 with
additional limitations. Tr. 1000-16. Specifically, the ALJ found that Armstrong can walk for 15
minutes before he must stand or sit; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and balance, stoop,
kneel, crouch, and crawl; and cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Tr. 1000. The ALJ also
determined that Armstrong can perform unskilled work with a regular break appropriately every
“Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing
up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good
deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg
controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, [the claimant] must have the
ability to do substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, [the SSA] determine[s] that he or she
can also do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to sit
for long periods of time.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b).
two hours, and can occasionally interact with others but cannot interact with the public or large
At step four, the ALJ indicated that Armstrong has no past relevant work. Tr. 1016. At
step five, the ALJ relied on the VE’s testimony and found that Armstrong can adjust to other work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy given his RFC, age, education, and work
experience. Tr. 1016-17. Specifically, the VE testified that Armstrong can work as a mail clerk,
cleaner, and cafeteria attendant. Tr. 1017. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Armstrong was
not “disabled” under the Act. Id.
Armstrong argues that remand is required because the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion
of consultative psychiatrist Christine Ransom, Ph.D. ECF No. 12-1 at 25-30. Specifically,
Armstrong asserts that the ALJ erred when he afforded “significant weight” to Dr. Ransom’s
opinion but failed to adopt all of its limitations or explain why he rejected certain limitations. The
An ALJ must “evaluate every medical opinion [he] receives, regardless of its source.”
Pena v. Chater, 968 F. Supp. 930, 937 (S.D.N.Y. 1997), aff’d, 141 F.3d 1152 (2d Cir. 1998); see
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). An ALJ is not required to “reconcile explicitly every conflicting shred of
medical testimony,” Dioguardi v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 445 F. Supp. 2d 288, 297 (W.D.N.Y. 2006)
(citation omitted), and “[t]here is no absolute bar to crediting only portions of medical source
opinions,” Younes v. Colvin, No. 1:14-CV-170 (DNH/ESH), 2015 WL 1524417, at *8 (N.D.N.Y.
Apr. 2, 2015). However, where the ALJ’s “RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a
medical source, the [ALJ] must explain why the opinion was not adopted.” Dioguardi, 445 F.
Supp. 2d at 297 (quoting S.S.R. 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996)). Thus, when
an ALJ adopts only portions of a medical opinion, he must explain why he rejected the remaining
portions. Raymer v. Colvin, No. 14-CV-6009P, 2015 WL 5032669, at *5 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 25,
2015) (citation omitted).
Dr. Ransom opined that Armstrong has moderate difficulty following and understanding
simple directions and instructions, performing simple tasks independently, maintaining attention
and concentration for simple tasks, maintaining a regular schedule, and learning simple new tasks.
Tr. 321. She also opined that Armstrong has moderate to marked difficulty performing complex
tasks, relating adequately to others, and appropriately dealing with stress. Id.
The ALJ summarized Dr. Ransom’s examination findings and opinion and afforded it
“significant weight.” Tr. 1003, 1012-13. Specifically, the ALJ found that the record evidence and
Armstrong’s daily activities supported Dr. Ransom’s opinion. Tr. 1012. The ALJ concluded that
Armstrong’s activities “do not support a disability finding, which is consistent with Dr. Ransom’s
mental exam findings that reflect [that Armstrong] experiences some restrictions, but is capable of
many functional criteria.” Id.
The Appeals Council remand order in this case specifically directed the ALJ to give further
consideration to Dr. Ransom’s opinion and to “explain the weight given to such opinion.” Tr.
1060 (emphasis added).
While the RFC finding that Armstrong can interact with others
occasionally and cannot interact with the public or large crowds is consistent with Dr. Ransom’s
opinion, the ALJ should have explained how the RFC accommodated Dr. Ransom’s other
restrictions and why he rejected additional limitations. First, despite Dr. Ransom’s opinion that
Armstrong was moderately limited in several other areas, the ALJ found that he could perform
unskilled work. Tr. 1000. Unskilled work requires the ability to understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions. See S.S.R. 96-9p, 1996 WL 374185, at *9 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). Dr.
Ransom opined, however, that Armstrong has moderate difficulty in these areas. Tr. 321. Second,
Dr. Ransom also opined that Armstrong has moderate difficulty performing tasks independently,
maintaining attention and concentration for simple tasks, maintaining a regular schedule, and
learning simple new tasks. Tr. 321. Finally, the ALJ ignored Dr. Ransom’s opinion that
Armstrong has moderate to marked difficulty dealing with stress. Tr. 321, 1000. Although Dr.
Ransom’s finding of “moderate” limitations does not automatically render Armstrong disabled,
the ALJ should have explained how the RFC accommodated these restrictions and why he rejected
additional limitations. Id.
The ALJ’s failure to reconcile the RFC assessment with Dr. Ransom’s opinion is
compounded by the fact that Dr. Ransom’s opinion was nearly four and a half years old when the
ALJ issued his decision and the record indicates that Armstrong continued to receive mental health
treatment during this time. 3 See, e.g., Camille v. Colvin, 104 F. Supp. 3d 329, 343-44 (W.D.N.Y.
2015), aff’d, 652 F. App’x 25 (2d Cir. 2016) (“[M]edical source opinions that are conclusory, stale,
and based on an incomplete medical record may not be substantial evidence to support an ALJ
finding.”). On remand, the Court directs the ALJ to obtain an updated medical opinion from
Armstrong’s treating sources or to order another consultative psychiatric examination.
Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 12) is GRANTED, the
Commissioner’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 13) is DENIED, and this matter
is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with this
opinion pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 124
The medical record contains a more recent mental functioning opinion from social worker Kelly Murrell dated
August 8, 2016. Tr. 1645-50. Ms. Murrell opined that Armstrong was significantly limited in several areas and
concluded that he could not complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically
based symptoms. Id. Even though this was a much more current assessment of Armstrong’s ability to perform mental
work-related functions, the ALJ rejected this opinion. Tr. 1014-15.
(2d Cir. 2000). On remand, the Court directs the ALJ to obtain an updated medical opinion from
Plaintiff’s treating sources or to order another consultative psychiatric examination. Because
Plaintiff filed his application nearly six years ago, the Court also directs the Commissioner to
expedite the remand and review of this matter. The Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment
and close this case.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: February 8, 2018
Rochester, New York
HON. FRANK P. GERACI, JR.
United States District Court
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