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PANTOJAS v. APFEL

March 16, 2000

LUIS PANTOJAS, PLAINTIFF,
V.
KENNETH S. APFEL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kaplan, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Luis Pantojas brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits. Pending before the Court is the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the Commissioner's motion and dismisses the complaint.

Background

Prior Proceedings

Plaintiff applied for SSI disability benefits on January 17, 1996, apparently on the grounds that he suffered from high blood pressure, a heart problem, and diabetes.*fn1 Plaintiff's application was denied on March 11, 1996.*fn2 Plaintiff requested a reconsideration of his application on March 18, 1996.*fn3 After reconsidering plaintiff's claim, in light of new medical evidence and information received subsequent to the original decision as well as the original record, plaintiff's claim once again was denied on June 28, 1996.*fn4 Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on September 11, 1996*fn5 which was held on June 24, 1997.*fn6 Plaintiff appeared without representation and testified through the use of a Spanish interpreter.*fn7 On July 2, 1997 the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim for SSI.*fn8 This determination became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review*fn9 on January 27, 1998.*fn10

Facts of Record

At the time he filed his application in 1996, plaintiff was 39 years old.*fn11 He is a U.S. citizen, has an eighth grade education, and does not speak English.*fn12 He spent 1989 to 1995 in prison and has no work history.*fn13 When he originally filed for disability, plaintiff claimed that he was disabled as a result of diabetes, a heart condition, and high blood pressure.*fn14 Evidence in the administrative record demonstrates that he was admitted to St. Agnes Hospital on January 24, 1994 for a cerebrovascular accident in the left thalmus area (a stroke)*fn15 and that he has been treated at North General Hospital since October 1995 for alcoholism and cocaine use.*fn16 Additionally, he claims that he is bothered by asthma which he has had since birth.*fn17 In his complaint, plaintiff includes his asthma and the effects of his stroke as disabilities that prevent him from working.*fn18

The record contains medical reports from several physicians who have examined Mr. Pantojas. On February 26, 1996 he underwent a physical examination conducted by Dr. Peter Graham.*fn19 Dr. Graham found that plaintiff's breath sounds were clear with no rales, rhonchi, or wheezing, he had a full range of motion of all joints without pain, and his muscle strength was adequate.*fn20 An EKG showed regular sinus rhythm, his cardiogram was normal, and the doctor found that his hypertension was controlled by medication. The doctor concluded that plaintiff was able to "sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, handle objects, hear, speak and travel" and that his prognosis was stable.*fn21

Dr. Graham referred the plaintiff for a psychiatric evaluation due to a previous history of psychiatric disorder. The doctor who performed this evaluation, Dr. Luigi Marcuzzo, found that plaintiff was pleasant and cooperative, appropriately dressed with good personal hygiene, and related appropriately to the interviewers. He concluded that plaintiff would benefit from psychiatric treatment and alcohol and drug rehabilitation treatment, but that he had no significant psychiatric limitation with respect to sustained concentration, persistence, social interaction, and adaption, and no limitations at all with respect to memory and understanding.*fn22

On May 22, 1996, after the first denial of plaintiff's claim but before reconsideration, plaintiff underwent another physical examination at New York Diagnostic Centers, Inc.*fn23 The examining physician, Dr. Howard Finger, found that plaintiff had hypertension and that his blood pressure was poorly controlled, had some weakness and loss of dexterity in his right hand as a result of the stroke, chest pain, chronic asthma with mild symptoms, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, hypercholesterolemia, and chronic recurrent headaches. Plaintiff's pulmonary function tests were essentially normal. His overall prognosis was guarded, but Dr. Finger concluded with regard to work-related activities that plaintiff had no gross difficulty in terms of sitting, was mildly limited in the duration of time he could stand, and was mildly to moderately limited in the distance he could walk and in his ability to lift and carry.*fn24

On June 24, 1996 plaintiff underwent a treadmill examination with Dr. Graham. The examination was curtailed because of fatigue, but plaintiff experienced no chest pain and the doctor noted that "no significant arrythmia [sic]" was present.*fn25

Finally, on May 22, 1997, after plaintiff's claim was denied on reconsideration but prior to his hearing before the Administrative Law Judge, Mr. Pantojas' treating physician, Dr. Adrian Gherman, completed and submitted a medical report.*fn26 Dr. Gherman stated that he first examined the plaintiff on October 5, 1995, and had seen him every one to five months since, most recently on May 16, 1997.*fn27 Plaintiff's initial and current complaints were of headaches, poor vision in his right eye, and pain in his right thigh when walking. Dr. Gherman stated that the plaintiff "is able to walk, but no[t] fast," and that he was responding satisfactorily to treatment for the stroke, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, transient hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and bronchial asthma.*fn28

At his hearing on June 24, 1997, Mr. Pantojas testified that he is always in pain, can walk two to two and one half blocks, cannot stand for very long, can sit restlessly, and can lift no more than 10 pounds.*fn29 He testified also that he sometimes cooks for himself, washes his own dishes, and goes shopping. He attends religious services and writes poetry and songs. Plaintiff stated also that he suffers from "terrible headaches" ...


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