Grove v. Commissioner of Social Security
DECISION AND ORDER: The Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings 12 is GRANTED and Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings 11 is DENIED. The complaint is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE, and the Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment and close this case. SO ORDERED. Signed by Hon. Frank P. Geraci, Jr. on 8/1/2022. (MDS)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
ROBERT G., 1
Case # 20-cv-06698-FPG
DECISION AND ORDER
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
On February 8, 2017, Robert G. (“Plaintiff”) protectively applied for Disability Insurance
Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Tr. 2 19. The Social Security
Administration (the “SSA”) denied his claim and Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before
Administrative Law Judge Addison C.S. Masengill (the “ALJ”) on August 20, 2019. Tr. 19. At
the hearing, Plaintiff and a vocational expert appeared and testified. On September 23, 2019, the
ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 16. On July 21, 2020, the Appeals Council denied review,
making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the SSA. ECF No. 1-2 at 2. On September 12,
2020, Plaintiff appealed to this Court. 3 ECF No. 1.
The parties moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(c). ECF Nos. 11, 12. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s motion is DENIED,
the Commissioner’s motion is GRANTED, and the ALJ’s decision is AFFIRMED.
In order to better protect personal and medical information of non-governmental parties, this Decision and Order
will identify the plaintiff using only his first name and last initial in accordance with this Court’s Standing Order
issued November 18, 2020.
“Tr.” refers to the administrative record in this matter. ECF No. 10.
The Court has jurisdiction over this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
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District Court Review
When it reviews a final decision of the SSA, 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).
Rather, the 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) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3)) (other citation omitted).
The Commissioner’s decision is “conclusive” if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). “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) (citations omitted).
To determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, an ALJ follows
a five-step sequential evaluation: the ALJ must determine (1) whether the claimant is engaged in
substantial gainful work activity; (2) whether the claimant has any “severe” impairments that
significantly restrict his or her ability to work; (3) whether the claimant’s impairments meet or
medically equal the criteria of any listed impairments in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation
No. 4 (the “Listings”), and if they do not, what the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
is; (4) whether the claimant’s RFC permits him or her to perform the requirements of his or her
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant’s RFC permits him or her to perform alternative
substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy in light of her age, education, and
work experience. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470-71 (1986); Rosa v. Callahan,
168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
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The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ analyzed Plaintiff’s claim for benefits using the process described above. At step
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 14,
2016, the alleged onset date. Tr. 21. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following
severe impairments: vertigo, diabetes mellitus, vestibular migraine headaches, spondylosis,
oropharyngeal dysphagia, right ulnar neuropathy, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, tremor in
bilateral arms, right knee osteoarthritis, right elbow epicondylitis, obesity, and mild obstructive
sleep apnea. Tr. 21. At step three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment
or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed
impairments. Tr. 21. Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff maintained the RFC to perform light
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with specific limitations. However, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff had certain exertional limitations including that Plaintiff must avoid dangerous
moving machinery, heights, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Tr. 23. Plaintiff also could not drive
because he could not operate his right foot or have leg control. Id. In addition, the ALJ found
Plaintiff could frequently grasp, pinch, and twist with his hands and arms. Id.
At steps four and five, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that existed in the national
economy that Plaintiff could perform including, for example, his past relevant work as a customer
service clerk. Tr. 31-32. As such, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled from his alleged
onset date, January 14, 2016, through the date of the ALJ’s decision, September 23, 2019.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating
physician, Dr. Soumya Bindiganavile Sridhar, and improperly relied upon the medical opinion of
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a consultative examiner. ECF No. 11-1 at 1. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not provide “good
reasons” for assigning little weight to Dr. Bindiganavile’s opinion. Id. The Court addresses
Plaintiff’s arguments below.
An ALJ must give a treating physician’s opinion regarding the nature and severity of a
claimant’s impairments 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
[the] record.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 106
(2d Cir. 2003) (“The SSA recognizes a ‘treating physician’ rule of deference to the views of the
physician who has engaged in the primary treatment of the claimant.”). An ALJ may discount a
treating physician’s opinion if it does not meet this standard, but must “comprehensively set forth
[her] reasons” for doing so. Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 33 (2d Cir. 2004); see also 20
C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2) (noting the SSA “will always give good reasons” for the weight afforded
to a treating source’s opinion).
When a treating physician’s opinion is not given controlling weight, an ALJ considers the
following factors to determine how much weight it should receive: (1) whether the source
examined the claimant; (2) the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) whether
the source presented relevant evidence to support the opinion; (4) whether the opinion is consistent
with the record as a whole; (5) whether a specialist rendered the opinion in his or her area of
expertise; and (6) other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(c)(1)–(6). If the ALJ fails to explicitly consider “(1) the frequen[cy], length, nature, and
extent of treatment; (2) the amount of medical evidence supporting the opinion; (3) the consistency
of the opinion with the remaining medical evidence; and (4) whether the physician is a specialist,”
she commits “procedural error warranting remand unless a searching review of the record assures
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the reviewing court that the substance of the treating physician rule is not traversed.” Guerra v.
Saul, 778 F. App’x 75, 76–77, n.2 (2d Cir. 2019) (alteration in original). In other words, a
searching review of the record must show that “the ALJ has provided ‘good reasons’ for [her]
weight assessment.” Id. at 77.
While the ALJ did not explicitly consider all of the above factors before assigning “little
weight” to the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician, a “searching review” of the record shows
the ALJ provided “good reasons” for the weight she assigned to the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating
physician. Here, the ALJ discounted Dr. Bindiganavile’s opinion because it was “not consistent
with the record as a whole.” Tr. 30; see, e.g., Freeman v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 17-CV-6862,
2018 WL 6605666, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 17, 2018) (“[T]he ALJ did not err when she discounted
[the treating physician]’s opinion based on its inconsistency with other record evidence.”); 20
C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(4) (noting that an ALJ will give more weight to an opinion that is consistent
with the record as a whole). An ALJ need not give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating
physician where it is contradicted by other substantial evidence in the record. See Carvey v. Astrue,
380 F. App’x 50, 52-53 (2d Cir. 2010) (summary order); Cohen v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 643 F.
App’x 51, 53 (2d Cir. 2016) (holding that an ALJ retains the discretion to reach a conclusion
inconsistent with an opinion of a treating physician where that conclusion is supported by
sufficient contradictory evidence) (summary order).
The ALJ properly discounted Dr. Bindiganavile’s opinion because it was inconsistent with
other evidence in the record. See Freeman v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 17-CV-6862, 2018 WL
6605666, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 17, 2018). Dr. Bindiganavile opined that Plaintiff was limited to
sedentary work due to the impairments described above because he “could rarely lift and carry 10
pounds and never 20 to 50 pounds […] could never twist, stoop, crouch/squat, and climb ladders,
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and rarely climb stairs […] could walk up to one block without rest or pain […] could stand/walk
and sit less than two hours in an eight hour day […] [and] would be absent more than four days
per month.” Tr. 30. However, the ALJ stated “little weight” should be assigned to the above
opinion because it described Plaintiff “in a much more limiting manner than the record supports.”
Id. In its decision, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff’s physical examinations and related clinical imaging
conducted after the alleged onset date showed Plaintiff possessed a range of motion and strength,
with relatively normal knee movement. Tr. 1111. Another examination showed somewhat
reduced lumbar range of motion, but otherwise normal findings, including “full power and
sensation in extremities and normal gait, heel walking, and toe walking.” Tr. 1181. Such findings
are inconsistent with the limited, sedentary capacity Plaintiff’s treating physician assigned.
In addition to Plaintiff’s clinical examinations and apparent improvement, the ALJ
properly found Plaintiff’s physical activities reported in treatment notes after the alleged onset date
do not support the treating physician’s opinion that Plaintiff is limited to sedentary work. Plaintiff,
for example, indicated in Dr. Bindiganavile’s treatment notes that he walked for exercise, often
with his pet dog, and was able to perform household chores, including pushing a garbage can down
his driveway. Tr. 917, 943, 1156. In light of Plaintiff’s aforementioned improvement with
treatment, normal clinical findings, and physical activities, the ALJ properly determined that Dr.
Bindiganavile’s opinion was not consistent with the overall record and accordingly assigned it
“little weight.” Tr. 30; see Clark v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 143 F.3d 115, 118 (2d Cir 1998) (It is
the function of “the agency, and not [the district court], to weigh the conflicting evidence in the
record.”). The Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination.
Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ improperly relied upon the opinion of a consultative
examiner. ECF No. 11-1. The Court disagrees. “Good reason” exists for affording the opinion
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less than controlling weight to the extent it conflicts with other medical opinions. Halloran v.
Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 32 (2d Cir. 2004) (“[T]he opinion of the treating physician is not afforded
controlling weight where the treating physician issued opinions that are not consistent with other
substantial evidence in the record, such as the opinions of other medical experts.”); see also
Camille v. Colvin, 652 F. App’x 25, 28 (2d Cir. 2016) (holding that ALJ was free to reject treating
physician’s opinion based upon the physician’s own treatment notes where other medical opinion
evidence supported the ALJ’s conclusion) (summary order). “[I]t is well-settled that a consulting
. . . examiner’s opinion may be given great weight and may constitute substantial evidence to
support a decision.” Colbert v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 313 F. Supp. 3d 562, 577 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).
“An ALJ has discretion to weigh the opinion of a consultative examiner and attribute the
appropriate weight based on his review of the entire record.” Guerra v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No.
16-CV-991, 2018 WL 3751292, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 7, 2018). If a consultative examiner’s
opinion is supported by evidence in the record, an ALJ can assign it greater weight than a treating
physician’s opinion. See Schisler v. Sullivan, 3 F.3d 563, 568 (2d Cir. 1993) (holding an ALJ may
permit the opinion of non-examining sources to override treating sources’ opinion if it is supported
by evidence in the record).
Here, because the consultative examiner’s opinion was consistent with the record, the ALJ
properly assigned the opinion greater weight than the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician. Tr.
26. Upon review of Plaintiff’s overall medical record, including the above clinical examinations,
signs of improvement, and Plaintiff’s reported physical activities, Dr. I. Seok opined that Plaintiff
was “limited to light work,” but could never “climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and occasionally
stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl.” Tr. 26. The ALJ noted that while Plaintiff did indeed have a
combination of physical impairments, “modest findings on examination, no assistive device[s]
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used and [Plaintiff’s] normal gait,” supported Dr. Seok’s “light work” determination. Tr. 26. In
sum, the Court holds that because the consultative examiner’s opinion was consistent with the
overall record, the ALJ properly accorded it greater weight than the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating
physician. See Gomez v. Saul, No. 19 Civ. 9278 (PMH)(JCM), 2020 WL 8620075 (S.D.N.Y. Dec.
23, 2020) (holding that “[a]n ALJ may properly reject a treating physician's opinion when it
conflicts with his own treatment notes,” when the “consultative examiner’s conclusions are more
consistent with the underlying medical evidence.”)
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, ECF No. 11,
is DENIED, the Commissioner’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, ECF No. 12, is
GRANTED, and the complaint is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. The Clerk of Court shall
enter judgment and close this case.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: August 1, 2022
Rochester, New York
HON. FRANK P. GERACI, JR.
United States District Court
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