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Thomas v. Astrue

August 5, 2010

JOSEPH MACK THOMAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge

DECISION And ORDER

Introduction

Plaintiff, Joseph Mack Thomas ("Plaintiff"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security finding Plaintiff ineligible for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Titles II and XVI respectively of the Social Security Act for the period of June 24, 2006 through February 23, 2008. Plaintiff asserts that this determination was not supported by substantial evidence and was based on error of law. Plaintiff alleges that the Commissioner erred in his determination by (1) violating the treating physician rule, (2) failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff's testimony regarding symptoms and pain, and (3) failing to consult a vocational expert. For the aforementioned reasons, the Plaintiff requests that the Commissioner's decision be reversed.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings affirming his final decision that the Plaintiff is not entitled to benefits for the period of June 24, 2006 through February 23, 2008 on the grounds that the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and based on the correct legal standards. For the reasons set forth hereunder, the Court finds the decision of the Commissioner to be supported by substantial evidence in the record and in accordance with the applicable legal standards.

Background

Plaintiff was born February 24, 1958. He completed his high school education, attended some college, and was employed as a field estimator for a fencing company for several years. In January 2004, Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident ("MVA") and sustained injuries to his spine and ribs. Plaintiff recovered from these injuries and returned to work, reporting only mild functional pain with strenuous activity. In February 2006, Plaintiff was shot in the left side. This resulted in nerve damage to his left leg and affected his ability to walk. Plaintiff did not return to work after being shot but remained employed with the fencing company through June 24, 2006. He has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since this employment terminated. On July 10, 2006, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("SSA"), Titles II and XVI respectively, alleging disability since June 24, 2006. These applications were initially denied and a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was filed. The Plaintiff appeared, with counsel, at an administrative hearing before ALJ Michael Friedman on July 7, 2008. On August 28, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision finding the Plaintiff disabled as of February 24, 2008, but not prior thereto. This became the final decision of the Commissioner on March 13, 2009 when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. This action, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision, was commenced on May 8, 2009.

Discussion

I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 320 (1976). Additionally, the section directs that when considering such a claim, the court must accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). Section 405(g) thus limits the court's scope of review to determining whether or not the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (finding that the reviewing court does not try a benefits case de novo). The court is also authorized to review the legal standards employed by the Commissioner in evaluating the Plaintiff's claim.

The court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Lynn v. Schweiker, 565 F. Supp. 265, 267 (S.D. Tex.1983) (citation omitted). The Commissioner asserts that his decision was reasonable and is supported by the evidence in the record, and moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Judgment on the pleadings may be granted under Rule 12(c) where the material facts are undisputed and where judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639 (2d Cir. 1988). If, after a review of the pleadings, the court is convinced that the Plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief, judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See, Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

II. Evaluation of Entitlement to Social Security Benefits

i. Standard for Determining Disability

The ALJ, in his decision, found that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Act for the period from June 24, 2006 through February 23, 2008. The Act defines a disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months..." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

An individual will only be considered "under a disability" if his impairment is so severe that he is both unable to do his previous work and unable to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

In determining if a disability exists, the ALJ is required to adhere to the following five-step sequential evaluation:

(1)if the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, he is not disabled;

(2)if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, his impairment(s) must be "severe" before he can be found disabled;

(3)if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a "severe" impairment(s) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months, and if the impairment(s) meets or medically equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry;

(4)if the claimant's impairment(s) do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the next inquiry is whether the claimant's impairment(s) prevent him from doing his ...


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