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REYES v. BARNHART

October 10, 2002

RAMON REYES, PLAINTIFF,
V.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John G. Koeltl, United States District Judge.

OPINION AND ORDER

The plaintiff, Ramon Reyes, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), denying his claim for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The plaintiff has also moved, in the alternative, that the case be remanded to the administrative agency for a new hearing.

The Commissioner's motion seeks to affirm the Commissioner's decision on the grounds that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying benefits is supported by substantial evidence. The plaintiff has moved to reverse and remand on two grounds: first, that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in not giving appropriate weight to the opinions of a treating physician and for failing to provide good reasons for rejecting them; and second, that the new evidence submitted by the plaintiff after the ALJ's decision undermines the ALJ's decision such that it is not supported by substantial evidence.

I.

The plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI benefits on October 4, 1996, (R. 116-119.), which was initially denied. (R. 88, 93-96.) The plaintiff reported that his disabling condition was "severe asthma and high blood pressure." (R. 116.) He then filed a timely request for reconsideration which was denied on April 3, 1997. (R. 89-90, 97-105). On May 28, 1997, the plaintiff filed a request for a hearing by an administrative law judge. (R. at 106.) A hearing was held on May 27, 1998. (R. 108-112.) At the hearing, the plaintiff was represented by counsel and the plaintiff testified that asthma, high blood pressure, and back pain prevented him from working. (R. 75-78.)

After listening to the sworn testimony of the plaintiff and reviewing all of the medical records that were submitted, Administrative Law Judge Joseph K. Rowe (the "ALJ") determined that the plaintiff was not entitled to DIB or SSI benefits because he "was not under a `disability' as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time through the date of the decision [September 30, 1998]." (R. 65.) The ALJ found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 15, 1995. (Id.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that the claimant had severe asthma, hypertension and lower back pain syndrome, but found that "his subjective complaint of totally disabling pain and discomfort" was not fully credible. (Id.) Additionally, the ALJ found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity to conduct work-related activity, except where the work involved frequent lifting and carrying of weight greater than 50 pounds. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ found that the plaintiff's impairments did not prevent him from performing his past work as a leather cutter. (Id.) The plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, and also submitted additional evidence for evaluation in such a review. (R. 10, 13.) The Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review on January 4, 2001, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 7-9.) This appeal followed.

II.

After coming to the United States, and until October, 1995, the plaintiff worked as a leather cutter in a factory, a job that required cutting pieces of leather with razor blades while standing. (R. 73-74.) After the factory shut down, and after receiving unemployment benefits, the plaintiff ceased looking for a new job, because he found that he could not continue working due to various medical ailments. (R. 75.)

The plaintiff first applied for DIB and SSI benefits on October 4, 1996. (R. 116-119.) He reported his disability as asthma and high blood pressure. (R. 116.) At the hearing before the ALJ, the plaintiff testified that he was suffering from symptoms of asthma, high blood pressure, and a back impairment. (R. 75.) He testified that he had asthma for over fifteen years, but that it had worsened over time, and prevented him from sleeping for more than an hour or two per night. (R. 75-76, 84.) The plaintiff had been taking medication to help control his asthma. (R. 76.) He testified that he had back pain for three to four years, for which he was using a back brace and also taking medication. (R. 76.) Finally, he noted that he had been suffering from high blood pressure for over fifteen years, and had been taking medication. (R. 77.) He also testified that he believed that the high blood pressure had been worsening, because he had recently been suffering from headaches and dizziness on a daily basis. (R. 85.)

The plaintiff reported that these medical conditions had impaired many of his daily activities. The combination of the plaintiff's symptoms limited his ability to stand for more than two or three hours without having to sit down, and prevented him from bending down or from lifting, carrying or pushing any weight. (R. 82-83.)

A review of the plaintiff's medical records show that on June 28, 1996 the plaintiff presented himself to Dr. Baez of the Renaissance Health Care Network for an examination regarding his asthma, hypertension and chest pains. (R. 235.) Dr. Baez found degenerative joint disease of the lumbo-sacral spine, knees and wrists, for which he prescribed Tylenol. (R. 145; 235.)

The plaintiff also visited Dr. Baez on several other occasions, when Dr. Baez took the plaintiff's blood pressure and prescribed anti-hypertensive medication. (R.231-236.) A July 12, 1996 visit revealed high blood pressure and medication was prescribed. (R. 143.) An X-Ray of the spine was taken at this time, which revealed changes of the spine at the C5, C6, and C7 levels. (R. 150, 200, 256.) X-Rays of the wrists, hands, and knees revealed no abnormalities and were negative for arthropathy. (R. 150.) An August 28, 1996 visit led Dr. Baez to increase the plaintiff's hypertension medication, and he also found that the plaintiff's asthma was stable and asymptomatic. (R. 141, 197, 232.)

Dr. Sanae Inagami, the plaintiff's regular physician, also evaluated the plaintiff on multiple occasions, and submitted her findings from those evaluations in a formal report to the State disability agency. That report contained the following findings. A June 19, 1998 examination of the plaintiff revealed spondylolysis of the lumbar spine. (R. 275.) This conclusion was based upon a CT scan, as well as observing that the plaintiff had an inability to put weight on his right leg, had weak flexor and extension, and had sensory loss in the right leg, although his reflexes were intact. (R. 275.) Dr. Inagami also noted that the plaintiff had been taking medication for back pain, and that he required spinal fusion, but had not been able to afford the surgery. (R. 275.) Dr. Inagami also diagnosed asthma and hypertension. (R. 275.) Finally, Dr. Inagami concluded that the plaintiff could recover only if he obtained surgery. (R. 276.)

As part of the report submitted to the disability agency, the Dr. Inagami included her June 19, 1998 Residual Functional Capacity Form ("RFCF"). (R. 209-10.) In this RFCF she estimated that during the course of an eight hour day, the plaintiff could sit for up to four hours, and could stand or walk up to two hours. Additionally, she noted that he cannot push or pull with either the upper or lower extremity, and that he cannot lift any weight. The RFCF recommended that the plaintiff avoid unprotected heights, moving machinery, marked humidity or temperature changes, driving, exposure to dust, and exposure to gases. (R. 209-10.) She also noted that the plaintiff's medication did not cause him any side effects. (R. 210.)

On January 31, 1997, the plaintiff was sent by the Social Security Administration for an examination by Dr. Peter E. Graham. (R. 160-63.) An examination of his lumbar spine revealed a full range of motion, and no muscle spasm or tenderness. (R. 161.). The plaintiff was able to raise his leg a full ninety degrees bilaterally, and he had muscle strength that was commensurate with his build. (R. 161.) Dr. Graham also examined the plaintiff's breathing, finding that the results of various tests were consistent with restrictive and obstructive lung disease, but that the plaintiff had normal breath sounds and did not exhibit any wheezing, rales or rhonchi. (R. 161, 162.) Dr. Graham also conducted pulmonary function testing, an EKG, and chest x-rays. (R. 161, 163-66.) From these tests and his observations of the plaintiff, Dr. Graham came to the following conclusions: the plaintiff had (1) asthma by history, but did not have clinical bronchospasm; (2) ...


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