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WALKER v. BARNHART

United States District Court, S.D. New York


April 28, 2004.

GLORIA WALKER, Plaintiff
v.
JO ANNE BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant

The opinion of the court was delivered by: SHIRA SCHEINDLIN, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

  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 Procedure 12(c).

 II. BACKGROUND

  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 137, 139.

  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).

 IV. DISCUSSION

  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.

  SO ORDERED.


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