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Johnson v. Barnhart

February 26, 2008

MARK A. JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge

DECISION And ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Mark A. Johnson ("Johnson" or "plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq.) claiming that the Commissioner of Social Security improperly denied his application for Supplemental Security Income benefits. Specifically, Johnson alleges that the decision of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who heard his case was erroneous because it was not supported by substantial evidence contained in the record, or was legally deficient, or in the alternative, remand is warranted by the newly submitted medical evidence.*fn1

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings on grounds that the ALJ's decision was correct, was supported by substantial evidence, and was made in accordance with applicable law. Johnson opposes the defendant's motion and seeks an order reversing the decision of the ALJ and remanding the case for immediate calculation of benefits, or in the alternative, for further proceedings pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

BACKGROUND

On April 25, 2003 plaintiff Mark A. Johnson, a forty-six year old with a high school equivalent education, filed an application for supplemental security income benefits claiming that he became unable to work as of November 1, 2001 due to post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, heart condition, osteoarthritis of the knees, status post left knee replacement, varicose veins, diverticulitis/gastritis and musculoskeletal problems. (Tr. 16-17, 101-03). The period at issue in this case is from April 25, 2003 to May 28, 2004. (Tr. 16). The application was denied initially by the Social Security Administration. (Tr. 16, 64, 79-82). Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing which was held on March 16, 2004, at which hearing plaintiff was represented by an attorney. (Tr. 29-63, 83-93).

On the basis of the hearing and the medical record, the ALJ found that although Johnson suffered from the severe impairments of osteoarthritis of the knees, status post right knee arthroscopy, post traumatic stress disorder, major depression, recurrent cocaine and alcohol dependence in remission, and degenerative changes in the lumbar spine and hips, he did not suffer from any condition or combination of conditions that were equivalent or more severe than any of the listed impairments identified in the Listing of Impairments, Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Tr. 27). The ALJ held that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of sedentary work and that there are a number of jobs in the national economy that the plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 28). On April 1, 2003 Johnson's appeal of the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Appeals Board was denied, and plaintiff timely filed this action. (Tr. 7-10).

DISCUSSION

I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Additionally, the section directs that when considering such a claim, the court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the court's scope of review to determining whether or not the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See, Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2nd Cir. 1983) (finding that the reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo). The court is also authorized to review the legal standards employed by the Commissioner in evaluating the plaintiff's claim.

The court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Lynn v. Schweiker, 565 F.Supp. 265, 267 (S.D.Tex.1983) (citation omitted). Defendant asserts that his decision was reasonable and is supported by the evidence in the record, and moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under Rule 12(c), judgment on the pleadings may be granted where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2nd Cir. 1988). If, after a review of the pleadings, the court is convinced that "the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [his] claim which would entitle [him] to relief," judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See, Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). Because the court determines that the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, judgment on the pleadings is hereby granted for the defendant.

II. The Commissioner's Decision to Deny Plaintiff Benefits was Supported by Substantial Evidence in the Record

The ALJ made the determination based on the evidence before her that the plaintiff did not suffer from a disability under the Social Security Act for the period of April 20, 2003 to May 28, 2004. A disability is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (1991). The ALJ found that the plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful since the onset of disability and that the plaintiff's allegations regarding his limitations are not totally credible. (Tr. 27). The ALJ determined that plaintiff's osteoarthritis of the knees, status post right knee arthroscopy, post traumatic stress disorder, major depression, recurrent, cocaine and alcohol dependence in remission, and degenerative changes in the lumbar spine and hips were severe impairments; that plaintiff's conditions either individually or in combination with her other impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4; that plaintiff did not have the capacity to perform her past work, and that plaintiff retained the functional capacity to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy including a significant range of sedentary work activities. (Tr. 27-28). "In reviewing decisions of the Commissioner, this Court cannot consider new evidence not made part of the administrative record." Nunez v. Barnhart, 2007 WL 313459 (S.D.N.Y. 2007); quoting Madrigal v. Callahan, 1997 WL 441903, 7 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). Accordingly, the additional medical records submitted by the plaintiff have not been considered in the determination of whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence.

On April 11, 2003 Johnson underwent right knee arthroscopy for osteoarthritis at St. James Mercy Hospital. (Tr. 579-82, 1046-48). Dr. John Halpenny concluded from this surgery that the plaintiff has osteoarthritis, a defect in the lateral femoral condyle and lateral tibial plateau, and a meniscus tear in the lateral meniscus in his right knee. (Tr. 581, 1048). At a follow-up appointment with Dr. Halpenny on April 18, 2003 the plaintiff reported that there were no neurologic symptoms and that he was not "doing too badly". (Tr. 1044). Johnson was using a cane to ambulate and was taking Hydrocodone and Celebrex to reduce his level of pain. Id. On April 25, 2003 the plaintiff was seen by Dr. Halpenny and reported that he had not experienced any locking, catching or giving way in his right knee and no neurologic symptoms. (Tr. 1043). After examining Johnson, Dr. Halpenny noted that he ambulated with a limp on his right side, lacked ten degrees of full extension, his flexion was 100 degrees, he did not have much tenderness to palpation, except ...


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