United States District Court, S.D. New York
April 28, 2004.
GLORIA WALKER, Plaintiff
JO ANNE BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant
The opinion of the court was delivered by: SHIRA SCHEINDLIN, District Judge
OPINION AND ORDER
Gloria Walker brings this action under section 205(g) of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (the "Act"), challenging the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying
her application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). Defendant has
moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
A. Procedural History
Plaintiff filed applications for SSI benefits on July 27, 1982, August 16, 1984, February 27, 1985*fn1 and February 13, 1992. See
Tr. at 54. In her application, plaintiff stated that her disability
impairments, a heart condition and feet problems, began in March of 1992.
See id. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon
reconsideration. See id. at 59, 67. Pursuant to a court order
issued in the Steiberger v. Sullivan class action lawsuit
requiring the Social Security Administration to reconsider plaintiff's
earlier applications, her claims were re-opened, reviewed, and again
denied in 2000. See id. at 74. Upon request, a hearing was
conducted before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on February 20,
2002. See id. at 35. On February 28, 2002, the ALJ issued a
decision denying plaintiff's application for benefits for the period
March 1989 through April 1998. See id. at 10, 14. The ALJ's
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals
Council denied plaintiff's request for review on February 26, 2003.
See id. at 6.
B. Plaintiff's Personal History
Plaintiff was born on January 28, 1947. See id. at 39, 54. She
was forty-five years old when she filed her application in March 1992.
See id. at 54. She completed eleven years of school and did not obtain a GED or
attend a vocational school. See id. at 40, 84, 101. Plaintiff
lives with her two children (ages thirty-one and thirty-five at the time
of her 2002 hearing) in a private home rented by the plaintiff. See
id. at 24, 39. In her 1992 application disability report dated May
22, 2000, plaintiff stated that she had not worked for the past fifteen
years. See id. at 96. Plaintiff testified that during the
relevant time period, March 1989 through April 1998, she used public
transportation without assistance on a regular basis. See id. at
40. Plaintiff testified that although she had had several surgeries on
her feet during the relevant time period which caused certain
limitations, these limitations had not kept her from working; rather her
migraine headaches and heart palpitations were the source of her
disability. See id. at 40-41. Plaintiff further testified that
she sporadically had difficulty holding objects and would occasionally
faint. See id. at 42. Additionally, plaintiff testified that on
some days she could walk "blocks and blocks and blocks" without
difficulty and on other days she tired easily. Id. at 43.
Plaintiff described her hobbies as watching TV, listening to the radio,
playing card games, reading, and experimenting with hair styles. See
id. at 44. Plaintiff testified that she did some household chores
but her children did most of them, although she did the cooking. See
id. C. Medical Evidence
1. Treating Physicians*fn2
a. Morrisania Neighborhood FCC
Plaintiff was seen at the Morrisania Neighborhood Clinic from September
1, 1992 through the present for pain caused by urination. She also
complained of itchy skin which was diagnosed as contact dermatitis.
See id. at 132-34.
b. North General Hospital
On October 15, 1991, plaintiff was seen at North General Hospital for
her hammertoe*fn3 condition and was referred to physical therapy.
See id. at 138. On November 19 and December 24, 1991, plaintiff
was seen in the Hospital's rehabilitation department after she had
surgery on her toe. In addition, it was noted that she had emphysema and
Marfan Syndrome,*fn4 although she was not seeking care for either of those conditions at that time. See
id. at 140-41.
On October 25, 1991, plaintiff was seen in the Hospital's Eye Clinic
for a chalazion*fn5 on her eye which was later removed. See id. at
c. Foot Clinics of New York
On January 23, 1992, plaintiff was seen at the Foot Clinics of New York
to correct the uneven lengths of her legs. Although she claimed to have
noticed this condition for some time, she asserted that it had only begun
to cause pain in November of 1991. Plaintiff also reported back and neck
pain caused by her collarbone which was broken when she was a child.
See id. at 144. Plaintiff was given a heel lift for her limb
length discrepancy and was advised to see a physician at North General
Hospital for her back pain. See id. at 145.
On April 16, 1992, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") contacted
plaintiff regarding her headaches. Plaintiff verbally informed the SSA
that she was treated at North General Hospital for all of her medical
problems but did not provide the names of any particular clinics. The
last time she sought medical care at North General Hospital was February of 1992. She
had been taking Fiorinal*fn6 for her headaches but that had not proven
effective. She is presently taking Elavil,*fn7 but she reported that it
makes her drowsy. Her headaches occur infrequently, although when they
occur they last two or three days. Generally, if she sleeps, the headache
subsides. See id. at 148.
2. Consulting Physician
a. Dr. Marilee Mescon
Dr. Marilee Mescon conducted a physical examination of plaintiff on
June 5, 1992. Plaintiff reported chest pain since childhood but stated
that she had never been hospitalized for this condition. Plaintiff
claimed that her chest pain was accompanied by nausea, palpitations,
diaphoresis and shortness of breath. Plaintiff reported occasional leg
swelling. See id. at 149. Plaintiff further reported peptic ulcer disease, which was documented
by an endoscopy and upper GI series. Plaintiff was hospitalized at St.
Mary's Hospital in Brooklyn in 1984 for passage of a melanotic stool.
Plaintiff reported that she still has burning mid-epigastric pain that is
somewhat relieved by antacids and Zantac. See id.
Plaintiff reported the following medical history: Hospitalized in the
late 1970s at St. Mary's Hospital for a right thoracotomy*fn8 secondary
to a spontaneous pneumothorax;*fn9 an appendectomy when she was fifteen
years old; a bout of pneumonia in 1988 for which she was treated as an
outpatient See id.
Plaintiff denied suffering from diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis,
gallbladder problems, kidney problems, seizures, or psychiatric problems.
See id. Plaintiff reported smoking less than a pack of
cigarettes a day for thirty years and denied drinking any alcohol or
using any illegal drugs. See id.
Dr. Mescon performed a physical examination of plaintiff's neck, chest,
lungs, heart, abdomen, extremities, central nervous system,
musculoskeletal system, breasts, and vital signs. In addition, Dr. Mescon ordered
several lab tests. Dr. Mescon's findings were: (1) atypical chest pain;
(2) history of peptic ulcer disease; (3) history of a right pneumothorax;
and (4) cardiac murmur suggestive of mitral insufficiency.*fn10 Dr.
Mescon concluded, on the basis of plaintiff's history and the physical
examination, that there were no objective findings to support a finding
that claimant was unable to sit, stand, climb, push, pull, or carry heavy
objects. See id. at 151. Additionally, Dr. Mescon completed the
residual physical functional capacity assessment and indicated very
little or no limitations on plaintiffs ability to perform basic work
`activities. See id. at 157-70.
III. LEGAL STANDARD
In reviewing a denial of disability benefits, the Act provides that the
"findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."
42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06
(2d Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence in this context is "more than a mere
scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting
Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 37 (2d Cir. 1996)). A court may only
set aside a Commissioner's determination when it is "based upon legal
error or not supported by substantial evidence." Pratts, 94 F.3d
at 37 (quoting Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir.
1982) (per curiam)). As such, this Court's task is limited to determining
whether the ALJ's decision is based upon substantial evidence in the
record and the correct application of governing legal principles. See
Rosa, 168 F.3d at 77.
In deciding disability claims, the ALJ must follow a five step process.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, 416.920. First, the
ALJ must consider whether the claimant is currently engaged in
substantial gainful activity. Second, if she is not so engaged,
the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment
that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.*fn11 Third, if the claimant suffers from such a
limitation, the ALJ must decide whether, based solely on the medical
evidence, that limitation corresponds with one of the conditions listed
in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If it does, the ALJ does not inquire
into vocational factors such as age, education and work experience
because the claimant is presumed to be disabled. Fourth, if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine
whether the claimant has the residual capacity to perform her past
relevant work despite her severe impairment. Finally, if the
claimant satisfies her burden of showing that she has a severe impairment
that prevents her from performing her past work, the burden then shifts
to the Commissioner to prove that the claimant retains the residual
functional capacity to perform alternative work which exists in the
national economy. See Draegert v. Barnhart, 311 F.3d 468, 472
(2d Cir. 2002).
The ALJ determined that (1) plaintiff did not have a "severe"
impairment during the period March 1989 through April 1998; (2)
plaintiffs statements at the hearing were not supported by medical
evidence; and (3) plaintiff was not under a disability during the period
of March 1989 through April 1998. Tr. at 16. Although plaintiff's
original 1982, 1984 and 1985 claim files could not be located,
plaintiff's 1992 claim file was located and is in the record.*fn12 The first step in the inquiry is whether or not the claimant is engaged
in substantial gainful activity. The ALJ found that plaintiff was not.
See id. at 15. This finding is supported by plaintiff's
testimony and her application where she stated that she had not worked
for the past fifteen years. See id. at 40, 78-79. The second
step is to determine whether the claimant has a "severe"
impairment.*fn13 Non-severe impairments include limitations in physical
functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling,
reaching, carrying or handling; capacities for seeing, hearing, and
speaking; understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple
instructions; and use of judgment. See
20 C.F.R. § 416.921(b) (2004). The ALJ determined, based on the medical
records and the residual physical functional capacity assessment by Dr.
Mescon, that plaintiff did not have a "severe" impairment. See Tr. at 15. According to the medical evidence in the record, plaintiff sought
medical care for contact dermatitis, difficulty with urination, a
chalazion on her eye, and a hammertoe during the relevant time period.
See id. at 132, 133, 137 and 138. The records indicate that
plaintiff had surgery on her toe, although plaintiff testified that the
hammertoe was not the cause of her disability. See id. at 140,
41. In fact, plaintiff testified that on some days she could walk for
blocks without difficulty. See id. at 43. Plaintiff reported
receiving treatment for her migraines at North General Hospital. See
id. at 148. However, North General Hospital provided no medical
records of such treatment although it did provide records of other
treatment. See id. at 135. The only doctor on record who
diagnosed plaintiff's heart condition was Dr. Mescon, a consulting
physician appointed by the SSA to examine plaintiff. See id. at
151. Dr. Mescon found that plaintiff had a cardiac murmur suggestive of
mitral insufficiency. However, Dr. Mescon also concluded that based on
plaintiff's history and physical examination, there were no objective
findings to support a finding that plaintiff was unable to sit, stand,
climb, push, pull or carry heavy objects. See id. Therefore,
during the relevant time period, there is no medical evidence supporting
plaintiff's claim that she was disabled as a result of migraines or a
heart condition. V. CONCLUSION
Based on the medical evidence in the record, the ALJ's decision must be
affirmed. The ALJ's decision that plaintiff did not suffer from a
"severe" impairment as defined in the regulations was based on
substantial evidence in the record and the correct application of
governing legal principles. Consequently, the ALJ's decision denying
plaintiff SSI benefits for the period of March 1989 through April 1998 is
hereby affirmed. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also
Green-Younger, 335 F.3d at 105-06; Pratts, 94 F.3d at 37
(2d Cir. 1996).
For the foregoing reasons, defendant's motion is granted. The Clerk of
the Court is directed to close this case.