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Vella v. Astrue

July 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Peck, United States Magistrate Judge


Pro Se Plaintiff Nicholas Vella brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying Vella child's insurance benefits. (Dkt. No. 2: Compl.) The Commissioner has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). (Dkt. No. 12: Gov't Notice of Motion; see alsoDkt. No. 13: Comm'r Br.; Dkt. No. 14: Vella Aff.) The parties have consented to decision of this case by a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Dkt. No. 9: Consent Stip. & Order.)

For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings is GRANTED.


Procedural Background

On January 13, 2006, fifty-four year old Nicholas Vella applied for disabled adult child ("DAC") insurance benefits*fn1 alleging that he had been disabled since January 1, 1961*fn2 due to various psychiatric disorders affecting him since childhood, namely paranoid schizophrenia and psychosis, aggravated by a long history of drug abuse and alleged molestation as a child. (Dkt. No. 12: Administrative Record filed by the Commissioner ["R."] 12-17, 54-57, 75, 449-50, 460.) When Vella's application was denied initially (R. 42-43, 50-53), he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (R. 44-45, 49). ALJ Wallace Tannenbaum held a hearing on November 21, 2006, at which Vella testified and was represented by counsel (Binder & Binder). (R. 454-68.) On February 22, 2007, ALJ Tannenbaum issued a decision finding Vella not disabled. (R. 26-33.) ALJ Tannenbaum's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Vella's request for review on October 3, 2008. (R. 4-6.)

The issue before the Court is whether the Commissioner's decision that Vella was not disabled from January 1, 1961 is supported by substantial evidence. The Court finds that it was.

Hearing Before the ALJ

Non-Medical Evidence

Vella was born on August 15, 1951, and turned twenty-two on August 15, 1973. (R. 54, 72, 457.) Vella testified that he attended a school for "troubled" children when he was ten years old and dropped out of school by age fourteen. (R. 80, 453, 459-60.) The New York City Department of Education was unable to locate any "special education record[s]" for Vella. (R. 132.) He received a General Equivalency Diploma when he was about thirty-three years old. (R. 457-58, 462-63.)

Vella testified that he began to experience psychiatric problems around age ten, when he was placed in a school for "troubled" children. (R. 80, 459.) Shortly after, he began seeing a psychiatrist at St. Vincent's Hospital on a regular basis. (R. 78, 459-60.) St. Vincent's, however, only had records for Vella dating back to 1975. (R. 87-102.) Vella also claimed to have been hospitalized at St. Vincent's and Bellevue Hospital at least eighteen times before his twenty-second birthday and to have received outpatient care at St. Vincent's, Bellevue and Cabrini during that period. (R. 453, 460-61.) The earliest medical record for Vella at any of those hospitals is from April 3, 1974, when he was hospitalized at Bellevue for an episode of psychotic symptoms and schizophrenia. (R. 140-41, 450, 461, 465-66.) Consistent with the 1974 medical records, Vella testified that he had "been in therapy since . . . 23 years old." (R. 463.)*fn3

Vella's only previous work entailed performing data entry and stuffing envelopes for the Parking Violations Bureau as part of a job training program provided by the Federation of the Handicapped ("FedCap"). (R. 80, 458.) Vella worked at the Parking Violations Bureau for only "one or two months" in 1989 because he "couldn't handle it." (R. 80, 458.) Vella earned $2,842 for his work. (R. 80.) He also earned $402.58 in 1972, but does not remember the source of this income. (R. 80.) Other than these brief periods of employment, Vella has been dependent on his family or public assistance (including SSI) for his entire life. (R. 458-59.) Upon his mother's death in 2005, Vella received a small inheritance with which he is supporting himself. (R. 69, 459; see also Dkt. No. 13: Comm'r Br. at 2 n.4: Vella likely lost eligibility for SSI benefits upon receipt of this inheritance because SSI is income and resource-based.) Vella testified that he currently lives alone, but is in contact with his siblings. (R. 457, 467.)

Vella testified to using various recreational drugs starting around age fourteen.*fn4 (R. 98, 461-62, 464.) He claimed that as a child he had been molested by a priest and others, causing him to turn to drugs because he "couldn't handle it." (R. 14, 449, 460.) Vella's older brother, Vincent Vella Sr., stated in a letter (submitted at the ALJ's suggestion) that Vella had been on "al[l] sorts of psychotic medications his whole life." (R. 453, 467.) Additionally, Mary Colamarino, a family friend, asserted that Vella had been on all sorts of drugs from an early age, had been hospitalized at least thirty-five times, and in her opinion was unable to work. (R. 451.)

Medical Evidence Before the ALJ

The earliest medical records regarding Vella's claims are from April 3, 1974, when Edgecombe Avenue Narcotics Center referred him to Bellevue Hospital. (R. 140-41.) Doctors at Bellevue diagnosed him with "[s]chizophrenia, chronic undifferentiated type." (R. 141.) Vella, who was then twenty-three years old, admitted to occasional marijuana use, but denied any other significant drug abuse. (R. 141.) Bellevue's Discharge Summary stated that Vella had "no history of psychiatric hospitalization" or treatment. (R. 141.) Bellevue also noted that Vella "is a poor historian and does not give a meaningful history." (R. 141.)

The earliest record from St. Vincent's shows that on January 29, 1975, St. Vincent's admitted Vella for an episode of bizarre behavior and diagnosed him with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. (R. 89, 90, 101.) St. Vincent's noted that Vella "has had one previous psychiatric hospitalization in 1974 at Bellevue." (R. 89, 90.) His parents indicated that he had been "us[ing] pills [and] smok[ing] marijuana." (R. 98.) St. Vincent's transferred Vella to a treatment program where he remained from March 17 to July 11, 1975. (R. 89, 90-97.) Upon discharge from day treatment, Vella was referred to outpatient aftercare at Beth Israel Hospital (R. 89, 92), but Beth Israel could not locate any of Vella's records (R. 135).

On February 12, 1981, St. Vincent's admitted Vella for treatment for delusional thoughts and paranoia after an altercation with his family. (R. 147-48.) St. Vincent's diagnosed him with acute and chronic ...

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