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Duchatelier v. Commissioner of Social Security

March 29, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matsumoto, District Judge


This is an appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff, pro se, contends that he is entitled to receive SSI benefits due to severe medically determinable impairments, which he alleges prevent him from performing any work. Presently before the Court is defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons stated below, defendant's motion is granted.


I. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits on March 8, 2005, contending that he had been disabled due to complications from a gunshot wound to the head that he sustained in 1980, and that he had not worked or been able to work since June 1, 1991. Tr. at 35.*fn1 The Social Security Administration denied his application on May 4, 2005. Tr. 30.

After his claim was denied, plaintiff obtained a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on May 9, 2006. Tr. 220-35. Plaintiff was not represented by counsel. Tr. 222. On June 1, 2006, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's application, finding that, based on the entire record, including plaintiff's medical records, plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that was "severe" within the meaning of the regulations (20 C.F. R. § 416.920(c)), that is, an impairment or combination of impairments that would significantly limit his ability to perform basic work activities. Tr. 244-47 (decision of ALJ Mark Hecht). The ALJ's opinion also noted that plaintiff had failed to attend either of two scheduled consultative internist and psychiatric examinations. Tr. 247.

On November 28, 2006, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review, vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded the case to the ALJ with instructions that the ALJ: 1) obtain additional evidence concerning the claimant's mental and physical impairments in order to complete the administrative record; 2) further evaluate plaintiff's credibility as to his subjective complaints; and 3) afford plaintiff another opportunity to attend a consultative examination in order to determine what work plaintiff could still perform despite his impairments. Tr. 236-40.

On March 15, 2007, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing, at which plaintiff was represented by counsel. Tr. 192-219. Prior to the supplemental hearing, in February 2007, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits based on his having reached the age of 65, and was granted benefits on that ground effective December 18, 2005 (the date on which he reached the age of 65). Accordingly, in a memorandum filed prior to the hearing, plaintiff's counsel amended the end date of plaintiff's disability from "ongoing" to December 17, 2005, and conceded that it was no longer necessary for the ALJ to determine if plaintiff could work on an ongoing basis. Plaintiff's counsel also amended the onset date of plaintiff's alleged disability from June 1, 1991 to March 8, 2005, the date on which plaintiff's application for SSI was filed. Tr. 10, 217.*fn2 Accordingly, the instant dispute over plaintiff's eligibility for SSI benefits concerns a period of slightly less than nine months (April 1, 2005 through December 17, 2005).

On August 28, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision again finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act because he did not have a severe impairment. Tr. 7-15. Thereafter, plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. Tr. 5-6. On July 11, 2008, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision on Mr. Duchatelier's claim for benefits. This appeal followed.

II. Non-Medical Facts

Plaintiff was born on December 18, 1940 in Haiti. Tr. 196. He was educated in Haiti through the twelfth-grade, and is able to read and write English.*fn3 Tr. 197. Plaintiff came to the United States in 1975, and is currently a United States citizen. Tr. 224-25. He is divorced, has two children, and currently resides in Brooklyn. Tr. 197.

After arriving in the United States, plaintiff was briefly employed as a gas station attendant, and by 1980 had obtained employment as a taxi driver. Tr. 198, 226. Plaintiff testified that in May 1980 he sustained a gunshot wound to his head during a robbery attempt. Tr. 200-01. As a result of the injury, he lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital for surgery, where he was held overnight and discharged the following morning. Tr. 201, 228-29.

Plaintiff testified that following the injury he returned to work as a taxi driver but was only able to work between one and three days per week because he experienced frequent nose-bleeds and headaches, loss of memory, an inability to concentrate, and occasional vomiting. Tr. 199, 209, 211, 214, 228-29; see also Tr. 48. He also worked for approximately four years driving a tractor-trailer truck, but testified that the above medical ailments similarly limited his ability to perform that work on a full-time basis. Id. Plaintiff stated that his most recent period of significant employment was as a taxi driver, and that he has not worked in that position since 1991.*fn4 Tr. 49, 199-200.

In 1991, plaintiff travelled to Haiti, where he remained until returning to the United States in approximately 1995. Tr. 202-03. Plaintiff testified that he has not been able to work on a full-time basis since returning to the United States, although he has on occasion performed some part-time work, such as helping a relative by "com[ing] in. . . to watch people" at the relative's restaurant. Tr. 230. Plaintiff stated that he has not worked in any capacity since 2004, and has subsisted though the charity of friends and relatives. Tr. 231.

On March 8, 2005, following an interview, an initial disability report (Form S.S.A.-3367) was completed on plaintiff's behalf by the Social Security field office. The interviewer, W. Chan, noted that plaintiff came to the interview himself, and observed that plaintiff "looked tired and weak . . . his concentration was not that well [sic] . . . [he had] lost some of his memory [and] his breathing was very heavy." Tr. 55-56. A more extensive disability report (Form S.S.A.-3368), apparently prepared that same day or shortly thereafter based on information supplied by plaintiff, states that plaintiff suffers from "head injury" and "back pain" and that he has "lost most of [his] memory, ...

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