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Colin A. Smith v. Michael J. Astrue

July 12, 2011

COLIN A. SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Richard J. Arcara United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

This case comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings (Dkt. Nos. 6, 8) that the parties have filed pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("FRCP"). Plaintiff Colin A. Smith commenced this action on December 17, 2009, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Through this action, Plaintiff challenges the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the denial of Plaintiff's claim.

As a procedural note, the Court had referred this case to Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder, Jr. Magistrate Judge Schroeder held oral argument on the pending cross-motions on July 27, 2010. After reviewing the motion papers and the transcript of the oral argument, this Court has decided that it can resolve the pending motions without the need for a report and recommendation under FRCP 72. For the reasons below, the Court grants the Commissioner's motion and denies Plaintiff's motion.

BACKGROUND

On May 18, 2005, Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits alleging disability beginning January 1, 2003, due to diabetes, cardiomyopathy with hypertension, status-post bilateral gunshot wounds, and status-post hip surgery. At the time of his application, Plaintiff was 28 years old, weighed 273 pounds, and was educated through the eleventh grade. (Tr. 47; 54). Plaintiff also indicated that he held full-time employment until the onset date of his disability in 2003, and after Plaintiff's SSI benefits were denied in September 2005, Plaintiff worked for another year performing various temporary physical labor jobs in grocery and factory production settings. (Tr. 57-64).On his application for SSI benefits, Plaintiff claimed an inability to stand for long periods of time, lift heavy objects, or work in cold temperatures, due to pain and other symptoms secondary to diabetes, hip injury, complications from gunshot wounds, and prior heart attack. (Tr. 47-48).

On January 23, 2002, Erie County Medical Center ("ECMC") admitted Plaintiffwith complaints of chest pain and diagnosed him with heart failure, diabetes, and mild to moderate left ventricular dysfunction. (Tr. 92-94; 100). On April 12, 2005, Buffalo General Hospital Emergency Room admitted Plaintiff for a draining gunshot wound; Plaintiff was shot in both legs in 2001, but had complications in his left leg four years later after "roughhousing with his daughter." (Tr. 134-143). Plaintiff revisited Buffalo General Hospital on May 4, 2005, and was prescribed Lortab to ease the residual pain from this injury. (Tr. 162).

On August 4, 2005, Dr. John Schwab conducted an internal medical examination of Plaintiff upon his filing for SSI benefits and diagnosed Plaintiff with diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and obesity. (Tr. 167). Two years later, on April 12, 2007, Plaintiff saw his primary care physician, Dr. Zahrain Hall, to treat complications from diabetes, stress, and pain in his knees and legs. Plaintiff returned to Dr. Hall a month later complaining of continued pain and seeking completion of a form for employability. Plaintiff felt he was unable to work because of pain in his knees and hip that gave him difficulty sitting and standing for a prolonged period of time. (Tr. 203; 205). Dr. Hall completed the form but concluded that Plaintiff should only temporarily stop working for three months.

Dr. Hall opined that after three months of taking prescribed medication, attending physical therapy, dieting, and completing a sleep study to aid Plaintiff's anxiety and exhaustion, Plaintiff would be able to complete "a job training program if he feels unable to do construction" and thus, eventually work again. (Tr. 205; 208-209).

Plaintiff's claim for SSI benefits was disapproved on September 14, 2005. (Tr. 32-35). On January 11, 2006, Plaintiff filed a Disability Report-Appeal in which he claimed that his pain had worsened thereby exacerbating his inability to move and perform daily activities. (Tr. 77-83). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on January 19, 2006, and subsequently obtained legal representation on June 6, 2008. A video hearing took place on August 7, 2008, before ALJ Maryellen Weinberg, at which only Plaintiff testified. (Tr. 23; 31; 36-39; 271-306).

In a written decision dated September 4, 2008, the ALJ denied benefits to Plaintiff. According to the ALJ, Plaintiff in fact suffers from diabetes and residual impairments from hip surgery, gunshot wounds, and congestive heart failure. Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's subjective complaints regarding pain and functional limitations were not entirely credible because they do not correspond to a collective reading of Plaintiff's medical records. (Tr. 17-22). Moreover, the ALJ found Plaintiff not entirely credible because he inconsistently took his diabetes medication, failed to regularly check his blood sugar level, continued to smoke, and did not diet as much as the doctor prescribed; the ALJ concluded that if Plaintiff's pain were as severe as claimed then he would take these prescribed steps to better himself. (Tr. 19-21). The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with the additional limitation that Plaintiff should not work inenvironments with a high concentration of dust, fumes and/or other pulmonary irritants because of his congestive heart failure. (Tr. 18-19).

Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's denial of benefits to the Social Security Appeals Council. In a written notice dated November 4, 2009, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council's notice thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed this action on December 17, 2009, challenging the ALJ's determination.

DISCUSSION

Jurisdiction and Scope of Review District courts have jurisdiction to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits, but may only set aside the Commissioner's decision if it is based upon a legal error or if the findings of fact are not supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). Evidence is substantial if it is "more than a mere scintilla," and if it is that which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a ...


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