The opinion of the court was delivered by: SPRIZZO
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Miguel Pena ("Pena") brings the instant action challenging the decision of defendant Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), Pena and the Commissioner cross-move for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons set forth below, Pena's motion is denied and the Commissioner's motion is granted.
Plaintiff Miguel Pena was born in Puerto Rico on August 27, 1940. See Transcript of the Administrative Record ("Tr.") at 51. Although Pena received a sixth or seventh grade education in Puerto Rico, he claims he has little ability to read and write in Spanish or English. Id. at 38, 89, 105, 138. Between 1961 and 1969, Pena maintained several manual construction jobs, see id. at 38, 130, and worked as a house painter during part of that time. Id. at 47, 182. However, since 1969, Pena has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity. Id. at 38-39, 138.
On October 3, 1991 a physician at the Lincoln Hospital Emergency Room ("Lincoln") treated Pena for arthritic pain in the hands and knees. See Tr. at 219. Upon physical examination, Pena displayed limited bilateral range of motion in his shoulder. Id. However, no other joint effusion was detected and his reflexes were characterized as "intact." Id. The attending physician also noted that Pena's right pinky had been amputated. Id. Neurologically, Pena was described as "grossly intact." Id. The physician concluded that Pena suffered from varicose veins in his lower legs as well as boney enlargement of his hands and prescribed medication to relieve Pena's joint pains. Id.
On October 21, 1992, Pena filed an application for SSI disability benefits on the ground that he suffered from a combination of physical and mental impairments, including alcoholism, varicose veins, arthritis, blindness in the left eye and mild organic brain syndrome, all of which Pena claims preclude him from working.
See Tr. at 51, 83, 91.
Between December 8, 1992, and December 14, 1992, Pena underwent in-patient rehabilitation for alcohol addiction at the Saint Barnabas Hospital detoxification unit ("St. Barnabas"). See Tr. at 110-29. On December 9, 1992, Pena was treated by Dr. Rubin, an attending physician at St. Barnabas, who observed varicose veins in his legs and mildly deformed index fingers on both hands. Id. at 122. However, a physical examination of Pena confirmed that there was no edema in his extremities and no redness or swelling in his joints. Id. at 120-22. Dr. Rubin reported that Pena was oriented in three spheres, neurologically "intact" and able to perform daily activities. Id. at 121. Upon discharge from St. Barnabas, physicians gave Pena a "fair" prognosis, nothing that he had "progressed" during his seven day detoxification treatment and had demonstrated "motivation towards an alcohol-free life style." Id. at 116.
On January 27, 1993, Pena was examined by Dr. Peter Grahm, M.D., a consultative physician for the Social Security Administration. See Tr. at 130-37. Dr. Grahm reported that Pena exhibited a normal range of motion in the lumbar spine with no tenderness or paraspinal muscle spasm. Id. at 131. Straight leg raising was negative and Pena's muscle strength was adequate and symmetrical. Id. at 131-32. Although diagnostic radiology revealed degenerative osteophyte formation of the lumber spine between the first and second vertebrae with mild degenerative disc disease at the fifth vertebrae, see id. at 132, 136, Dr. Grahm reported that Pena could stand on his toes and perform a full squat without difficulty. Id. at 132. With respect to Pena's extremities, Dr. Grahm reported full range of motion in Pena's joints with no pain, swelling, tenderness, deformity, redness or heat. Id. However, there were "2-3" varicose veins in the left leg. Id. Neurologically, Dr. Grahm indicated that Pena was oriented and alert with gross memory intact. Id. In addition, Pena's sensory perception was grossly preserved to touch and vibration. Id. Dr. Grahm concluded that Pena had a history of alcohol abuse without accompanying end organ damage and a history of joint pains without any functional deficits. Id. at 133. As a result, Dr. Grahm opined that Pena was "able to perform physical activities such as: sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying [and] handling objects . . . ." Id.
On January 27, 1993, the same day Pena was examined by Dr. Grahm, Pena was also examined by consultative psychiatrist Dr. Luis Zeiguer, M.D., who assessed Pena's mental and emotional state at the Commissioner's request. See Tr. at 138-41. Pena travelled unaccompanied on public transportation to the interview and appeared clean, tidy and "meticulously dressed." Id. at 139. Dr. Zeiguer found Pena's speech to be communicative, productive, goal-oriented and consistent with an average psychomotor rate. Id. Although not intoxicated during the examination, Dr. Zeiguer observed that Pena's breath smelled of alcohol. Id. Pena told Dr. Zeiguer that he became alcohol dependent at the age of fifteen and occasionally experienced blackouts as well as auditory and visual hallucinations. Id. at 138. Pena also indicated that he slept intermittently during the night, often awaking from vivid nightmares and requiring several drinks to alleviate his shaking and vomiting before returning to sleep. Id. at 140. However, Dr. Zeiguer was unable to obtain a detailed or consistent account of Pena's life circumstances because Pena "gave some farfetched answers for very simple questions.
Id. at 139. Dr. Zeiguer's diagnosis was alcohol dependency with fictitious memory loss, a history of varicose veins and post-surgery status for abdominal stab wounds sustained many years earlier. Id. at 140. Dr. Zeiguer found Pena to be sufficiently in control of his drinking habit to manage his own funds, perform "at least simple repetitive chores . . . [and] relate to peers, supervisors and tasks without disrupting the work setting." Id. at 141. However, Dr. Zeiguer cautioned that Pena's alcohol problem might cause him to be "high or hung over" during the workday. Id.
On February 12, 1993, the Commissioner denied Pena's application for SSI disability benefits, stating that, based upon Dr. Zeiguer's and Dr. Grahm's evaluations and Pena's medical records from his detoxification program at St. Barnabas, Pena's medical condition did not prevent him from working. See Tr. at 64-67. The Commissioner noted that she considered factors such as Pena's medical records, age, education, training, and prior work experience in deciding how Pena's medical condition impacted his ability to work. Id. at 67. Specifically, the Commissioner found that Pena did not establish a combination of impairments sufficiently "severe" to preclude him from engaging in substantial gainful activity.
Id. Although Pena demonstrated that he suffered from a joint problem, the medical evidence indicated that he was able to "move about freely . . . [and] function normally in every day life." Id. With respect to Pena's alcohol abuse, the Commissioner found that Pena's condition had been under control since he received treatment at St. Barnabas. Id. Based upon his age of 52 years, his seven years of education, and prior work experience, the Commissioner found that Pena could perform jobs involving "simple tasks," and therefore was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id.
On February 19, 1993, Pena filed a request for reconsideration of the Commissioner's decision. See Tr. at 68. On August 31, 1993, Dr. Zeiguer performed a second psychiatric evaluation of Pena. Id. at 182-85. During the consultative interview, Pena informed Dr. Zeiguer that he had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems in 1968 after he stabbed a relative. Id. at 182. Although Pena claimed that he drinks up to four pints of rum on a daily basis, he did not appear to be intoxicated nor did he smell like alcohol at the time of the examination. Id. at 182-83.
Dr. Zeiguer found Pena to be a well-oriented person that maintained adequate concentration and displayed a neutral, stable mood, see Tr. at 183, whose memory was mildly impaired as a result of chronic alcohol abuse. Id. at 183-84. With respect to functional abilities, Dr. Zeiguer noted that Pena engaged in household chores, managed his own financial affairs, and for recreation, watched television and played dominos or swam at the beach with friends. Id. at 184. Dr. Zeiguer determined that Pena suffered from mild organic brain syndrome and recommended abstinence through affiliation with a twelve-step alcohol rehabilitation program. Id. As in his first examination of Pena, Dr. Zeiguer again concluded that Pena should be able to perform "at least simple repetitive chores," id. at 185, and "relate to peers, supervisors and tasks without disrupting the work setting." Id.
On August 31, 1993, the same day as his second examination by Dr. Zeiguer, Pena was also examined by Dr. Myron Seidman, M.D., at the Commissioner's request, for painful varicose veins, stiff joints, alcoholism and shortness of breath. See Tr. at 168-81. Physical examination revealed normal wrist and elbow flexion but slight crepitus with right shoulder flexion. Id. at 169-70. Dr. Seidman also observed some stasis dermatitis in the left leg resulting from moderate to severe varicose veins. Id. at 170. Pena's vision measured 20/40 in the right eye and less than 20/200 in the left eye when aided by eye-glasses. Id. at 169. Upon neurologic evaluation, Dr. Seidman found Pena to be alert, relevant, coherent and without a thought disorder. Id. at 170. With regard to physical impairments, Dr. Seidman concluded that Pena had an obstruction or incompetence venous return left leg, a history of joint pains resulting from osteoarthritis, shortness of breath and poor vision in the left eye. Id. On the ...