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Jackson v. Astrue

November 10, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCURN, Senior U.S. District Court Judge


Plaintiff Claude Jackson ("plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to §205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Act. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the decision of Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") John T. Yeary in denying plaintiff's application for benefits was against the weight of substantial evidence contained in the record and contrary to applicable legal standards.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), arguing that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is confirmed.


Plaintiff, who worked as a farm machine mechanic (Tr. at 117), was at his workplace on December 9, 2002 when he bent over to weld some equipment and injured his back. Tr. at 174-75; 142. The following recitation of the procedural history and facts of this case are taken from the complaint, trial briefs, and the administrative record. Where the parties' rendering of the facts differs from the record, where facts are omitted, or in the interest of clarification, the facts will be supplemented as needed by undisputed facts from the record.

A. Procedural History

On September 19, 2003, plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB"), alleging disability due to back problems stemming from the December 9, 2002 workplace incident. Tr. at 42-4. Plaintiff's application was denied. Tr. at 34-7. Plaintiff made a timely request for a hearing before an ALJ. Tr. at 38. The hearing was held on September 30, 2004. On October 25, 2004, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding that plaintiff was disabled for a closed period of time from December 9, 2002 to April 12, 2004, but after April 12, 2004, "the claimant was not under a 'disability,' as defined in the Social Security Act (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g))." Tr. at 23. Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision. On July 29, 2005, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Tr. at 4-6. Plaintiff asked for court review of the ALJ's decision by filing this civil action.

B. Facts

At the time of the ALJ's decision, plaintiff was a 51-year-old male, with a date of birth listed as January 29, 1953 (Tr. at 17, 42). Following the workplace incident set forth supra, plaintiff was seen on December 10, 2002 by Stephen Strasser, M.D., at the Sharon Springs Health Center. At that time, Dr. Strasser advised plaintiff to apply moist heat and liniment, and to take ibuprofen for pain.

Tr. at 129. On January 21, 2003, Dr. Strasser prescribed the muscle relaxant Flexeril for pain. Tr. at 127.

Dr. Strasser referred plaintiff to Century Imaging for a lumbar MRI on February 3, 2003, which revealed "multi-level degenerative disc and facet disease as described*fn2 (mild)" and "left sided somewhat broad based L4-5 disc herniation. The lesion effaces the left anterolateral thecal sac at the origin of the left L5 nerve root and narrows the proximal left neural foramen." The MRI also indicated "left sided eccentric disc bulging at L5-S1." Tr. at 131. Plaintiff was referred for a neurosurgical consultation, and on February 12, 2003, plaintiff was evaluated by Gregory Frevele, RPA-C,*fn3 and John Wahlig, M.D. Plaintiff was diagnosed as having "improved low back and left leg pain that responded well to conservative measures. MRI reveals evidence of a far lateral left L2-3 disk [sic] herniation as well as a broad-based left-sided L4-5 bulging/herniation with a foraminal component, the latter of which is likely the etiology of his current complaints. As long as he is continuing to improve it is not felt that there is any indication for consideration of neurosurgical intervention at this time ...." Tr. at 143. Dr. Wahlig reevaluated plaintiff again on February 22, 2003, and recommended physical therapy for low back conditioning and strengthening, which plaintiff said had helped him previously. Dr. Wahlig noted that if plaintiff's symptoms didn't lessen with physical therapy, plaintiff might need epidural steroid injections. Tr. at 137.

On March 17, 2003, plaintiff was examined by Dr. James W. Nelson pursuant to his Workers' Compensation claim. Dr. Nelson stated that plaintiff "impresses me as a person in considerable discomfort." Dr. Nelson diagnosed a left L4-5 disc herniation with a left radicular component, causally related to the December 9, 2002 incident*fn4 , and opined that plaintiff had a marked, partial and temporary disability. Tr. at 117-19.

On April 25, 2003, Dr. Strasser provided plaintiff's counsel with a functional ability assessment that stated that plaintiff had a moderate-marked causally related partial disability in the degree of 66 2/3%. Dr. Strasser also added work restrictions of "no lifting or bending," and "no prolonged sitting." Tr. at 164. At a follow-up visit on June 5, 2003, Dr. Strasser wrote, "[w]ill see if we can improve things with nerve-altering medications and longer acting NSAIDS ... Of note, after the visit, patient walked out of the room quite comfortably." Dr. Strasser prescribed a combination of Neurotin and Peroxicam. Tr. at 123-24. On his follow-up visit to Dr. Strasser on July 14, 2003, plaintiff reported that he was feeling better. Tr. at 123.

On August 5, 2003, plaintiff returned to Dr. Nelson for assessment, who noted that plaintiff was no longer having physical therapy. After examination, Dr. Nelson found a moderate, partial and temporary disability. Tr. at 113-15. Dr. Nelson opined that although he couldn't state when plaintiff would be able to return to his regular job, "plaintiff should be able to return to a clerical or sedentary job. He could perform any job that did not require him to repeatedly bend to reach items less than 24 inches off the floor or lift anything heavier than 30 pounds." Tr. at 115.

On a September 18, 2003 office visit, Dr. Strasser wrote that plaintiff was "really no better." Plaintiff had increased his pain medication Neurontin to 300 mg. three times a day but found that it made him sleepy during the day. Plaintiff was complaining of muscle spasms and tightness. Dr. Strasser opined that the pain was muscular or tendinous in etiology. Dr. Strasser decreased the Neurontin to 200 or 100 mg. three times a day, and suggested massage or whirlpool therapy to relax plaintiff's muscles. Tr. at 122.

On November 20, 2003, plaintiff returned to Dr. Strasser for follow-up of back pain. Plaintiff reported that he had seen Dr. Wahlig, who stated that there were no good surgical options. Dr. Wahlig sent plaintiff back to physical therapy. Plaintiff reported that he had good days, then suddenly, without any warning or increased activity, he would have severe increased back pain. Dr. Strasser advised plaintiff to wean himself off the Neurontin as plaintiff did not feel that the Neurontin was making any difference. ...

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