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CULVER v. CALIFANO

December 12, 1980

Yvonne CULVER, Plaintiff,
v.
Joseph A. CALIFANO, Jr., Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CURTIN

This is an action brought under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

Plaintiff Yvonne Culver is a former assembly worker at Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors Corporation. At the time of her complaint, she was 38 years old, divorced, and living with her two children, then ages 17 and 20.

On February 26, 1975, after working at Harrison Radiator since 1965, she fell off a stool at work. She began experiencing pain several days later in early March and has not worked since then. She claims a period of disability from March 8, 1975, to at least January 19, 1977. Although she has had bruises and pain from the fall and ultimately underwent an operation for a diaphragmatic hernia, her major claim is not based on her physical ailments but on a psychological impairment allegedly brought on by the fall. The primary disabling condition claimed then is psychoneurosis, conversion type, and psychotic depression, with periods of remission.

 In order to establish that Ms. Culver has a "disability" within the terms of the Act, she has the burden of showing that she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful employment "by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." Social Security Act, § 223(d)(1).

 The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on November 2, 1976, plaintiff having earlier exhausted her other administrative appeals. On January 19, 1977, the ALJ issued an opinion denying plaintiff benefits. The ALJ's opinion became the final decision of the Secretary on April 21, 1977. A complaint was filed in this court on October 25, 1977. The government filed its responsive papers, including a brief, by June 4, 1978. There having been no action in this case for six months, on January 4, 1979, the court, sua sponte, issued an order to show cause why the claim should not be dismissed for failure to prosecute. Upon a showing by the parties, the order was withdrawn on April 16, 1979. Motions for summary judgment and briefs were filed by October, 1979. Oral argument took place December 19, 1979; the case was submitted in January, 1980.

 The ALJ concluded that there was no basis for granting benefits based on her physical disability claim, as her physical problems did not prevent her from working for a period of 12 consecutive months. The ALJ further concluded that the claimant's subjective complaints were not sufficiently credible to serve as a basis for a finding of disability. Court Transcript Index, filed February 28, 1978, at 48 (hereinafter "Transcript").

 Plaintiff contends that she was disabled for more than the requisite consecutive 12-month period by the combined effects of her physical and mental ills. She contends that the ALJ employed an improper legal standard in making his determination. Specifically, she contends that he relied on the absence of objective physical symptoms in order to deny her claim.

 LAW

 The law in this area is clear that objective evidence is not essential to a finding of inability to perform substantial gainful employment. This kind of case calls for a careful examination of plaintiff's credibility with respect to her subjective complaints. In this regard, it is clear that subjective symptoms such as pain or severe discomfort may well serve as the basis for establishing disability even if such subjective symptoms are completely unaccompanied by positive clinical findings or other "objective" medical evidence. Ber v. Celebrezze, 332 F.2d 293 (2d Cir. 1964); Doe v. Harris, 495 F. Supp. 1161 (S.D.N.Y.1980). In addition, the ALJ may not reject plaintiff's claims on the ground that objective clinical findings do not establish cause for such intense subjective symptoms. Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23 at 27 (2d Cir. 1979). On the other hand, the ALJ may weigh the objective medical evidence, along with plaintiff's demeanor and other indicia of credibility, in deciding whether to credit her claimed subjective symptoms. Marcus, id. In this case, a careful review of the numerous medical reports convinces the court that the ALJ placed "undue emphasis" on the lack of objective medical findings. See generally Branham v. Gardner, 383 F.2d 614 (6th Cir. 1967); Cutler v. Weinberger, 516 F.2d 1282 (2d Cir. 1975).

 It is necessary to set out in some detail the plaintiff's medical record in order to explain how the court has reached this conclusion, particularly in light of plaintiff's need to show a 12-month period of disability.

 FACTS

 Although most of the evidence presented to the ALJ at the hearing concerning plaintiff's medical condition stems from the period beginning after February 26, 1975, the day on which she fell at Harrison Radiator, plaintiff's psychological problems were documented long before. As early as 1969, Dr. Harold J. Levy, a psychiatrist, had seen the plaintiff as a patient in consultation and concluded that she was suffering from a "severe and neurotic disorder with masochism," which required further psychotherapy. Transcript at 176. Although this information properly has no bearing on the ALJ's conclusion as to the plaintiff's ability to perform substantial gainful employment during the period in question, it is relevant information with respect to his determination of plaintiff's credibility as to her subjective complaints. It is certainly most unlikely that someone in plaintiff's position would, in effect, attempt to make a record six years in advance of her claim.

 The other medical evidence before the ALJ all relates to the period after the physical injury. I will discuss it chronologically.

 The medical reports concerning plaintiff's injuries which were written immediately after her fall leave no doubt but that she was unable to perform any work in that immediate period. Two days after plaintiff stopped going to work, she saw Dr. Louis A. Scinta, M.D. After repeated treatments, his "objective findings" were that plaintiff had severe bruises of the chest with pain in breathing as well as an injured right hip, giving patient a sciatic pain. He concluded that plaintiff was unable to work from March 8, 1975, when she stopped working. Dr. Scinta anticipated plaintiff ...


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