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Poulton v. Astrue

April 4, 2008


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



Plaintiff, Scott K. Poulton ("Poulton" or "plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Specifically, Poulton 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 and therefore he is entitled to judgment on the pleadings. The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the ALJ's decision was correct, was supported by substantial evidence, and was made in accordance with applicable law.

For the reasons that follow, this Court finds that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and accordingly I grant the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and determine that plaintiff is "disabled" pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).


On January 23, 2004 plaintiff Scott K. Poulton, a 42 year old with a high school education filed an application for disability insurance benefits claiming that he had become unable to work as a painter as of March 25, 2003 because of a compression fracture of the fourth vertebra of his back, shattered heels in both feet, and depression resulting from a fall from a ladder while painting at a housing development. (Tr. 44A-45, 51). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration by the State Disability Determination Service on April 26, 2004. (Tr. 11). Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing which was held via video conferencing on September 12, 2006, at which plaintiff was represented by an attorney. (Tr. 387-415).

On October 12, 2006 the ALJ determined based on the hearing and the evidence in the record that plaintiff did not suffer from a disability under the Social Security Act. 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). After reviewing the record the ALJ found that the plaintiff's statements "concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects" of the plaintiff's symptoms were not entirely credible. (Tr. 15). The ALJ determined that plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity; that plaintiff had a history of a lumbar spine fracture, bilateral calcaneal fractures, and lumbar spine degenerative disc disease which are severe impairments; that plaintiff's conditions either individually or in combination with his 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 his past work, and that plaintiff retained the functional capacity to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy including light work activities. (Tr. 13-19). At the September 12, 2006 hearing vocational expert, Tony Melanson testified that an individual with the same education and vocational background as Poulton and who could perform simple, routine sedentary work involving repetitive tasks, which did not require a great deal of concentration and was limited in performing tasks not requiring overhead work and avoiding heights, stairs and uneven surfaces could perform the unskilled sedentary jobs of a systems surveillance monitor, an inspector/tester, or a packer. (Tr. 406-409). On March 30, 2007 Poulton's appeal of the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council was denied, and on May 18, 2007 the plaintiff filed this action. (Tr. 4-6).


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 Disability Insurance Benefits.

That section also 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.

"Though [the court] must credit an ALJ's findings if supported by substantial evidence, we retain a responsibility to conduct a searching inquiry and to scrutinize the entire record, having in mind that the Social Security remedial in purpose." citing McBrayer v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 712 F.2d 795, 798-99 (2nd Cir. 1983); Dousewicz v. Harris, 646 F.2d 771, 773 (2nd Cir. 1981). Defendant asserts that the 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).

A District Court should order payment of benefits in cases where the record contains persuasive proof of disability and remand for further evidence would serve no purpose. Carrol v. Sec. of Health and Human Serv., 705 F.2d 638 (2nd Cir. 1981). The goal of this policy is "to shorten the often painfully slow process by which disability determinations are made." Id. Because this court finds that (1) the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence and (2) the record contains substantial evidence of disability such that further evidentiary proceedings would serve no purpose, judgment on the pleadings is granted for the plaintiff.

II. Medical History

On March 25, 2003 Poulton fell 25 feet from a ladder while painting in a housing development and as a result was hospitalized at Rochester General Hospital ("RGH") until April 9, 2003. (Tr. 149-71). The plaintiff underwent bilateral open reduction internal fixation of both heels after an x-ray revealed bilateral calcaneal heel fractures. (Tr. 153-56, 163-65). X-rays of the plaintiff's lumbar spine showed an L4 anterior compression fracture. (Tr. 158). After discharge from RGH Poulton was treated at Hill Haven Nursing Home for rehabilitation until June 13, 2002. (Tr. 173-266).

On May 16, 2003 the plaintiff was examined by M. Gordon Whitbeck, Jr., M.D. (Tr. 297-98). Dr. Whitbeck also examined x-rays of the plaintiff's lumbar spine which were taken at the hospital that revealed healing of the L4 compression fracture with minimal hints of kyphosis but with some loss of lumbar lordosis. Dr. Whitbeck diagnosed an acute L4 compression fracture and cervical spondylosis without myelopathy and advised Poulton to continue wearing his back brace. Id.

On April 16, 2003 the plaintiff was examined by Gregory S. Finkbeiner, M.D., from Greater Rochester Orthopaedics, P.C. while in Hill Haven Nursing Home. (Tr. 314). In a report dated April 16, 2003 Dr. Finkbeiner stated that x-rays of the heels were taken that revealed stable internal fixation and restoration of the posterior facette. "Disability: Total." Id. On May 14, 2003 x-rays were taken which showed that both feet had stable internal fixation with interval healing across the fracture site. (Tr. 311). Dr. Finkbeiner noted that the plaintiff was to begin ankle, subtalar and mid-foot ranges of motion, and some general strengthening and modalities. Id. On June 11, 2003 the plaintiff again saw Dr. Finkbeiner who noted that there was some mild swelling of the plaintiff's feet and that he had regained range of ...

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