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Rodriguez v. Astrue

May 14, 2008

EDDIE A. RODRIGUEZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harold Baer, Jr., District Judge*fn1

OPINION & ORDER

On April 25, 2007, Plaintiff Eddie A. Rodriguez ("Plaintiff") commenced this action to challenge the final determination by the Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and thus not entitled to disability benefits. On September 4, 2007, the Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the determination of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is supported by substantial evidence. On October 24, 2007, Plaintiff cross-moved this Court for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), seeking to reverse the Defendant's decision and to have the case remanded for the sole purpose of calculation of Plaintiff's benefits. Because the ALJ did not fail to apply the correct legal standard and his determination that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, I GRANT Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn2

A. Procedural History

On September 14, 2005, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits that alleges disability beginning February 28, 2005 due to a post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") that relates to his work at the World Trade Center recovery site after September 11, 2001. (Rec. 59-62.) The claim was initially denied on December 9, 2005. (Rec. 22, 23-26.) The Plaintiff also began to experience lower back pain and sought diagnosis and treatment from his primary care physician and a specialist from April 2006 through June 2006.*fn3 Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing, which was held via videoconference on June 14, 2006. (Rec. 13.) The claimant and his attorney appeared at the Goshen, New York hearing site, and the ALJ Brian W. Lemoine presided over the hearing from the White Plains, New York hearing office. (Rec. 29, 303-40.) Mr. Donald R. Slive, an impartial vocational expert, ("Vocational Expert") also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Rec. 13.) The period at issue in the hearing ran from February 28, 2005, the date on which Plaintiff claimed he became disabled due to his PTSD, to September 27, 2006, the date on which the ALJ issued his decision. (Rec. 13.) This period includes Plaintiff's claim of disability due to his lower back pain, for which he began treatment in April 2006. The Plaintiff admits and the ALJ noted that he meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Action §§ 216(i) and 223 through December 31, 2009 based on his earnings record. (Id.; Pl. Brief 2.)

The ALJ considered the case de novo and issued a decision on September 27, 2006 finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act and thus not entitled to disability benefits. (Rec. 10-21.) The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review on March 12, 2007. (Rec. 6-9.) On April 25, 2007, Plaintiff commenced this action to review the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On September 4, 2007, the Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), seeking an order to affirm his final decision. On October 24, 2007, the Plaintiff cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), seeking (i) to reverse the Commissioner's final decision, and (ii) to have the case remanded for the sole purpose of calculation of Plaintiff's benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

B. Non-medical Evidence

Vocational Background. The Plaintiff, who was born on February 2, 1971, was thirty-five years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (Rec. 15 (ALJ Decision, Sept. 27, 2006)). He earned an Associate Degree in Law Enforcement in 1993. (Rec. 88, 310.) From 1992 through 1994, he worked as a bank security guard, and from 1994 through 2005, he worked as a police officer, first for the New York State Park Police, and then from 1999 through 2005, for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ("Port Authority"). (Rec. 83, 119, 311-12, 314.)

On September 11, 2001, the Plaintiff was deployed to the World Trade Center ("WTC") site to assist in rescue and recovery. (Rec. 312-313.) He worked for the next two years at the WTC site, during which time he developed increased anger, could not work with a partner, would lash out at the public, and had dreams of body parts. (Rec. 313, 315.) On February 28, 2005, the last day he worked, the Plaintiff had an episode of sweating and crying and his lieutenant required him to surrender his weapon and see Dr. Doris Francis, a staff psychologist with the Port Authority's Office of Medical Services. (Rec. 82, 113, 136, 313, 315).

C. Relevant Medical Evidence

1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression

Port Authority's Psychologist, Doris Francis, PhD. On his last day of work, February 28, 2005, the Plaintiff's lieutenant referred him to Dr. Doris Francis, a Port Authority staff psychologist whom he consulted twice monthly through October 2006. (Rec. 136.) The Plaintiff stated that for the previous four months, he had experienced feelings of depression, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping. Id. When next seen on March 7, 2005, he reported that he had been struggling with images of and sadness related to his work at the WTC recovery site. Id. During his counseling sessions with Dr. Francis, he spoke of emotional issues related to September 11, 2001, and his ex-wife, including sadness, anger and guilt. (Rec. 131-35.) On April 28, 2005, the Plaintiff reported increased difficulty sleeping and concentrating and on May 12, 2005, the Plaintiff was reported as being "very confused." (Rec. 202.) Dr. Francis reported that the Plaintiff's various psychological symptoms would preclude him from returning to work as a police officer. (Rec. 198-204.) Dr. Francis declined the Commissioner's request for her opinion about the Plaintiff's work-related mental abilities. (Rec. 128-30.) Her notes are part of the Record. Dr. Francis referred the Plaintiff to outside mental health treatment and over the course of the next year, the Plaintiff was treated by a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Luria, and a psychologist, Dr. Paul Kleinman.

Treating Psychiatrist, Richard Luria, M.D. On May 11, 2005, Dr. Luria began treating the Plaintiff. (Rec. 155.) Dr. Luria found that the Plaintiff, after working several months at the WTC recovery site, experienced increased anxiety, irritability, anhedonia,*fn4 insomnia, anorexia,*fn5 social withdrawal, loss of initiative, impaired concentration, guilt, a depressed mood, anergia,*fn6 and sensitivity to, and avoidance of, reminders of September 11, 2001, but denied hopelessness or suicidal ideation. (Luria May 11, 2005 Report, Rec. 159-60.) Dr. Luria reported that the Plaintiff was well-groomed, articulate, spontaneous and cooperative. (Rec. 160.) Dr. Luria found no psychotic phenomena and found the Plaintiff's sensorium*fn7 was clear, his cognitive faculties and orientation were intact, and his intelligence was within normal limits. Id. Dr. Luria diagnosed PTSD and major depressive disorder on Axis I; no diagnosis on Axis II; no diagnosis on Axis III; major stressor -- witnessing a disaster -- on Axis IV; and a 55 on Axis V.*fn8 Id. Dr. Luria prescribed anti-depressant medication and supportive therapy. (Rec. 153, 155, 160, 163.)

On October 28, 2005, Dr. Luria reported that the Plaintiff's attitude, appearance, behavior, speech, thought perception, sensorium, intellectual functioning, insight and judgment were normal, and though his mood was depressed and his affect was constricted, he did not exhibit suicidal features. (Rec. 155-157.) Dr. Luria found that the Plaintiff had a marked impairment of attention and concentration, would have difficulty following detailed instructions or schedules, and would be unable to tolerate any reminders of his past work and trauma as a police officer. (Rec. 156-57.) In addition, his abilities in maintaining pace and work attendance and in understanding and memory were impaired and the Plaintiff would be unreliable in his interaction with the public. (Rec. 157.)

By February 3, 2006, Dr. Luria reported that most symptoms of the Plaintiff's depression had subsided, although he still had symptoms of PTSD. (Rec. 264.) In the Mental Capacities Evaluation form,*fn9 Dr. Luria opined that the Plaintiff had good abilities to follow work rules, relate to co-workers, use judgment, interact with supervisors, and function independently; he had poor to no abilities to deal with the public or deal with work stresses; and he had fair ability to maintain attention and concentration. (Rec. 276.) Dr. Luria found that the Plaintiff had unlimited/very good abilities to understand, remember and carry out simple and detailed job instructions; and had good abilities to understand and carry out complex job instructions. (Rec. 277.) Dr. Luria found that the Plaintiff had unlimited/very good ability to maintain his personal appearance, fair ability to relate predictably in social situations, and poor to no ability to demonstrate reliability. Id.

On March 7, 2006, Dr. Luria found that the Plaintiff had no limitation in his ability to understand, remember and carry out instructions, and a slight limitation in his abilities to appropriately interact with coworkers, respond to work pressures, and respond to changes in a routine work setting.*fn10 (Rec. 185-86.) The Plaintiff had a moderate limitation of his abilities to interact appropriately with the public and a marked limitation in interacting appropriately with supervisors. Id. Dr. Luria stated that Plaintiff was embittered and resentful over the loss of his police career and identity as a police officer and in his opinion, the Plaintiff was unable to perform his prior job as a police officer ...


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