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Sandra Decker Fuller v. Michael J. Astrue

December 6, 2010

SANDRA DECKER FULLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca

DECISION and ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Sandra Decker Fuller ("Plaintiff"), brings this action pursuant to Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner")denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of administrative law judge ("ALJ") Elizabeth W. Koennecke is not supported by substantial evidence and does not comply with the applicable legal standards. Both Plaintiff and the Commissioner move for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rule 12(c)"). The Commissioner contends that his decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and should therefore be affirmed.

After reviewing the record, this Court finds that the ALJ did not comply with the applicable legal standards and the Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff's application for DIB and SSI is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Therefore, for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted, and the Commissioner's motion is denied.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This Court adopts the summary of the procedural and factual history taken from both the Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law("P. Mem.") and the Commissioner's Memorandum of Law, the relevant portions of which are repeated here and which comport to the ALJ's summary at the hearing. Docket #4 and #7, Transcript of Administrative Proceedings ("Tr.") at 864-865. Plaintiff alleges a disability based on a back disorder, neck pain, a heart defect and depression. She is a high school graduate and has past relevant work history as a waitress. Plaintiff first filed an application for DIB and SSI on December 18, 1995 and was initially denied on February 20, 1996. Plaintiff did not appeal that denial, but reapplied for disability benefits on August 3, 1998, alleging a disability from June 15, 1997. Her claim was initially denied on February 24, 1999, and again on reconsideration on June 23, 1999. Plaintiff filed a timely request for an administrative hearing, and in a decision dated March 19, 2001, an ALJ denied her application. The Social Security Appeals Council ("Appeals Council")denied further review on August 15, 2002.

Plaintiff then filed a third application for disability benefits and SSI on October 30, 2001, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2001. Her application was denied on February 6, 2002, while the appeal of her previous denial was still pending.

Plaintiff filed an action in this Court to review the denial of her second application, and this Court remanded the case to the Social Security Administration, as the Commissioner was not able to locate Plaintiff's files. At that time, Plaintiff's second and third applications were consolidated and the Appeals Council directed an ALJ to re-hear Plaintiff's case. A hearing was held on August 26, 2003, and an ALJ denied Plaintiff's application. After review by the Appeals Council, Plaintiff's application was again remanded to the ALJ. Another hearing was scheduled, but Plaintiff was not able to attend the hearing and her application was summarily dismissed by the ALJ on March 23, 2005. The Appeals Council denied further review on May 11, 2005. The parties then filed a stipulation in this Court on April 16, 2007 to vacate the decision of the Appeals Counsel and remand the case for a de novo hearing on the merits.

ALJ Elizabeth W. Koennecke held the final administrative hearing in this case on February 4, 2009. Plaintiff was present at the hearing with her counsel, which was held by video conference. The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a decision dated March 17, 2009. Plaintiff then filed the instant action seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision on May 29, 2009.

MEDICAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff began treatment for back pain with Dr. Steven Lasser in July 1995 and continued to see Dr. Lasser through 2001. Dr. Lasser diagnosed an acute lumbar sprain resulting from an accident at work. Plaintiff was given a lumbar support and she began physical therapy. X-rays were negative, pain was moderately severe and she had tenderness at L4-L5. She was out of work for approximately 7 weeks, and returned to light duty work until October 1995 when she was taken out of work because the activity severely increased her pain. She was given a caudal epidural block and a steroid injection. An MRI did not reveal a herniation, but her pain continued to increase. She was considered temporarily, totally disabled.

Plaintiff continued to see Dr. Lasser for low back pain that radiated down her right leg with occasional numbness in her right foot. The pain increased with activity and Dr. Lasser opined that she had right sacroiliac joint dysfunction syndrome. Joint blocks provided temporary relief and she was referred to a chiropractor in 1996. Dr. Lasser also prescribed caudal epidural blocks.

On April 23, 1997, Plaintiff was diagnosed with SI joint dysfunction secondary to right trochanteric bursitis and ITB inflamation secondary to abnormal gait and SI joint dysfunction after complaining of increased pain in the right hip and right knee. Physical therapy provided limited relief. She was given a knee support and a shoe lift.

Plaintiff continued to have pain in her legs and back and on October 14, 1997, a CT scan demonstrated a right-sided L5-S1 disc herniation. Dr. Lasser reviewed the CT and recommended a lumbar epidural injection, physical therapy and a repeat MRI. Plaintiff was taken out of work after an acute flare-up later in October 1997. Her pain was aggravated by sitting and standing for long periods. She had markedly positive straight leg raising, a ...


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