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Tifa v. Astrue

March 26, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dora L. Irizarry United States District Judge


DORA L. IRIZARRY, United States District Judge

Pro se Plaintiff Carmen D. Tifa filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., on February 23, 2004. Plaintiff's application was denied by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on January 2, 2008, and review of that decision was denied by the Appeals Council on May 30, 2008. Plaintiff filed the instant action, pro se, seeking judicial review of the denial of benefits, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). On March 3, 2009, the Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), seeking affirmation of the denial of benefits. Plaintiff indicated on March 2, 2009 that she would not oppose Commissioner's motion. For the reasons set forth more fully below, the court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision and that the decision is free of legal error. The Commissioner's motion is granted, and the ALJ's decision is affirmed.


A. Procedural History

Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified with the assistance of a Spanish language interpreter at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on August 30, 2006.

By decision dated September 15, 2006, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. On January 12, 2007, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings, and directed the ALJ to obtain evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on plaintiff's occupational base.

On December 6, 2007, plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified with the assistance of a Spanish language interpreter along with vocational expert Pat Green at a supplemental hearing held before the ALJ. The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's claim of disability de novo and, on January 2, 2008, found that plaintiff was not disabled, because she retained the residual functional capacity to perform work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On May 30, 2008, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review.

B. Non-medical and Testimonial Evidence

Plaintiff was born on July 19, 1973 in the Dominican Republic, where she acquired an eighth grade education. (Administrative Record ("R.") at 669, 718.) She speaks only limited English. (R. 670, 718, 738.) She migrated to New York City in 1989, where she worked as a housekeeper until the alleged onset of her disability on March 19, 2002. (R. 162, 669-70.) In that capacity, she swept, mopped, washed dishes, did laundry, cleaned bathrooms and otherwise did household maintenance work. (R. 164.) She often lifted items weighing less than ten pounds, but sometimes was required to lift items weighing in excess of twenty pounds, such as vacuum cleaners, furniture and trash bags. (R. 164, 720.) Plaintiff asserts that she is disabled by reason of depression, insomnia, back and knee pain, a stomach hernia, morbid obesity and arthritis, all of which allegedly cause pain and fatigue and impair her ability to work. (R. 163.)

As part of her disability application, plaintiff completed an activities of daily living questionnaire. (R. 173-80.) Plaintiff stated that she took care of her own personal hygiene and grooming needs and took care of her three children. She also stated that, although she had less energy to perform daily activities and socialize as a result of various ailments, she took her three children to school, prepared meals, swept, dusted, ironed, washed clothes, went grocery shopping, traveled on public transportation, and ran other errands by herself on a daily basis. (R. 173-179.) She claimed that she had difficulty paying attention, getting along with relatives, completing tasks, and remembering things. (R. 178-79.) Plaintiff indicated that she was receiving medical treatment and took Tylenol and Motrin to manage her pain. (R. 182.)

At the hearing held on August 30, 3006, plaintiff testified she that she continued to clean houses until the end of 2003. (R. 718-19; 720.) She then participated for several months in a work program through public assistance. (R. 723.) Plaintiff claimed to have been depressed since 1998. (R. 723.)

At the hearing held on December 6, 2007, plaintiff testified that she was unable to work due to a hernia, diarrhea, psychiatric problems, back and leg pain, obesity, and vision problems.

(R. 672-76.) With respect to her emotional problems, plaintiff testified that she had difficulties with concentration and attention, and had been in treatment since 2001. (R. 674, 682, 723, 732.) She reported having problems with her family and children, but indicated that her monthly visits to her psychiatrist helped her greatly and acknowledged that medications improved her symptoms. (R. 674, 682.) Plaintiff testified that she could pick up a gallon of milk without difficulty, but that a twenty pound bag of potatoes would be too much for her. (R. 677, see also R. 724.) She estimated that she could sit for thirty minutes, stand for twenty to twenty-five minutes, and walk for about two or three blocks at one time. (R. 677, see also 724-25.)

Plaintiff also testified that she lived in an apartment with her three sons, who helped her shop for groceries, clean the apartment, prepare meals, do the laundry, pay bills, take her medication, and travel on public transportation. (R. 175, 677-79, 724-26.) Although plaintiff said she had difficulty leaving her apartment by herself due to fear of large crowds, she indicated that she went to church with her sons on a regular basis, and sometimes went out with a female friend "to unwind." (R. 676, 681, 727, 734.) She said she spent her days listening to relaxation tapes provided by her psychologist and watching television, but was often subject to crying spells for no specific reason. (R. 729, 731-32.)

B. Vocational Evidence

Vocational expert ("VE") Pat Green testified at the hearing on December 6, 2007 that plaintiff's past relevant work as a house worker was classified as "semi-skilled at a medium level" in the Directory of Occupational Titles. (R. 684.) The VE indicated that the skills acquired by plaintiff in that capacity are not transferable to other types of work. (R. 684.)

According to the VE, a claimant of plaintiff's age, education and work history would not be able to perform plaintiff's previous work, assuming that she could: (1) carry out simple instructions, (2) sustain attention and concentration sufficient to do unskilled work; (3) relate to co-workers and supervisors, and (4) adapt to changes in the workplace, but (5) was limited to unskilled, low stress, sedentary work, consisting of simple, repetitive tasks not requiring attention for more than two hours at a time without a break. (R. 684-85.) However, the VE identified other jobs in the regional ...

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