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Dias v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 25, 2019

ANNIE DIAS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ALLISON D. BURROUGHS, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On February 13, 2018, Annie Dias (“Dias”) filed an appeal of the final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits. [ECF No. 1]. Dias claims that she has mental disabilities, including generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, and physical disabilities, from a stroke, degenerative disc disease, and carpal tunnel. [ECF No. 19 at 3]. Dias challenges the Commissioner’s denial of benefits on five grounds: (1) that the Appeals Council (“Council”) failed to recognize her anxiety disorder as a severe impairment; (2) that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) and Council decisions failed to consider more recent post-stroke records; and (3) that the ALJ and Council failed to address a portion of a 2016 report from the State agency consultant, Dr. Vladimir Yufit (“2016 Yufit Report”), which supported her argument for a reduced residual functional capacity. [Id. at 4–13].

         On September 3, 2019, Magistrate Judge Cabell filed a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), in which he (1) found no basis to conclude that the Council’s decision erred in failing to list plaintiff’s anxiety as a severe impairment and, in the alternative, found that any error was harmless; (2) determined that the ALJ and Council did have access to the post-stroke records, as both decisions summarize or reference them; and (3) found that the ALJ had failed to indicate the weight given to certain opinions by Dr. Yufit that would have supported Dias’ argument. [ECF No. 28 at 17–24]. He therefore recommended that the Court grant Dias’ motion for an order reversing the Commissioner, deny the Commissioner’s motion to affirm, and remand the case for further proceedings on Dias’ third argument. [Id. at 29].

         On September 12, 2019, the Commissioner filed an objection to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s conclusion that the ALJ and Council did not specifically state whether they credited some functional limitations contained in the 2016 Yufit Report. [ECF No. 30]. According to the Commissioner, because the ALJ actually discussed some of the limitations in question, it should be inferred that she reviewed the 2016 Yufit Report. [Id. at 1]. Dias responded on September 19, 2019. [ECF No. 31].

         The Court presumes familiarity with the evidence and will not summarize it anew here. The Court is required to make a de novo determination as to those portions of the R&R that the Commissioner objects to and may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); see Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). The Court adopts the R&R to the extent that neither party has objected to it, and, following de novo review, accepts the conclusions to which the Commissioner objects for the reasons explained below.

         I. DISCUSSION

         A. It would not be “useless formality” to remand for a discussion of the unaddressed portions of the 2016 report.

         The Commissioner first argues that, given the compelling evidence that Dias was not disabled, the Court should not remand in order to address the portions of the 2016 Yufit Report that would seem to support Dias’ claim of disability. [ECF No. 30 at 2–6]. According to the Commissioner, even if the ALJ failed to consider the relevant portions of the report, the report is not significantly more favorable to Dias than the portions that were discussed. [Id. at 3].

         The R&R takes issue with the ALJ’s decision for two reasons. First, the ALJ and Council failed to discuss a portion of the 2016 Yufit Report that supported Dias’ claim of disability. [ECF No. 28 at 22–27]. Specifically, Dr. Yufit determined:

[Dias] can sit no more than 20 minutes, stand no longer than 20 minutes, and can walk no longer than 20 minutes at a time. She can totally sit during the eight hour day about two hours. She can stand about two hours and she can walk about two hours over the eight hour day. Intermittently she can sit, stand and walk six hours . . . . She has difficulty with some limitation with reaching overhead, especially with the right hand, with handling objects, fingering, feeling, pushing and pulling with both hands. . . . [S]he can climb stairs and ramps occasionally [but] not [] ladders and scaffolds. She has some problem with balance. She cannot stop . . . . She cannot work on unprotected heights and cannot work with moving machinery parts. . . . She occasionally can operate a motor vehicle. She drives but she takes painkillers. She has a problem working with humidity and wetness, cannot work with dust, odors, fumes. . . . She cannot work in extreme cold, extreme heat, or vibration. She cannot tolerate noise. She can work in a quiet environment.

[Id. at 25]. The ALJ also did not present the vocational expert with a hypothetical that corresponded with the limitations put forth in the 2016 Yufit Report. [Id. at 27]. Second, the R&R notes that the ALJ failed to assign weight to certain supportive testimony from Dr. Sokol, who conducted a psychodiagnostics interview and subsequent assessments between 2014 and 2016. [Id. at 6, 27–28].

         The Commissioner is correct that “an [ALJ] is not required to address specifically every piece of medical evidence that accords with or is inconsistent with his or her conclusions.” Tassel v. Astrue, 882 F.Supp.2d 143, 148 (D. Me. 2012). For example, the ALJ appropriately explained the determination not to give controlling weight to the opinions of Dias’ treating physician, because the opinions that supported Dias’ claim of disability were “contradictory to [the treating physician’s own] treating records from 2010–2016.” [ECF No. 16-2 at 27]. Specifically, Dias’ treating physician determined that Dias could not perform sedentary work, despite normal or mostly normal physical examinations during the relevant period. [Id.].

         “Findings of fact made by State agency medical and psychological consultants . . . must be treated as expert opinion evidence of nonexamining sources at the administrative law judge and Appeals Council levels of administrative review.” SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *1 (July 2, 1996). Therefore, “[ALJs] and the Appeals Council may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to these opinions in their decisions.” Id.

         The ALJ in this case discussed certain findings from the record that supported a determination that Dias was not disabled, see [ECF No. 16-2 at 26–27], but did not explain why those findings were not afforded greater weight in the Step 4 determination. [Id.]. This included the 2016 Yufit Report, as well as portions of Dr. Sokol’s report that would have supported Dias’ claim of disability. “Failing to address such evidence makes it ‘impossible [for a court] to determine whether [the ALJ] merely discredited that assessment or, in fact, overlooked that piece of [] evidence most supportive of [the claimant’s] claim.’” Ross v. Astrue, No. 09-cv-11392, 2011 WL 2110217, at *8 (D. ...


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