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Brittany L. Brown v. Michael Astrue

July 19, 2012

BRITTANY L. BROWN, 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, Brittany L. Brown("Plaintiff"), brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income("SSI"). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge, Lawrence Levey ("ALJ"), denying Plaintiff's application for benefits, was not supported by substantial evidence in the record and was contrary to the applicable legal standards.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on the grounds that the decision of the ALJ was supported by substantial evidence in the record and was in accordance with the applicable legal standards. Plaintiff opposes the Commissioner's motion, and cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings. This Court finds that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record and was in accordance with the applicable legal standards. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted, and the Plaintiff's motion is denied. Plaintiff's complaint is dismissed with prejudice.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and SSI on January 30, 2009, alleging disability beginning on May 1, 1990 (her date of birth), under Title II and Title XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act. Transcript of the Administrative Proceedings at 62-69 (hereinafter, "Tr."). Plaintiff alleged disability due to "spina bifida, hydrocephalus, depression, asthma and migraines." Tr. 71. Plaintiff's applications for DIB and SSI were initially denied on February 21, 2009, and May 12, 2009, respectively. Tr. 63-69. Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on only her SSI claim, which was held via video conference on December 13, 2010 before ALJ Lawrence Levey. Tr. 23-61. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing, with counsel, and testified. Tr. 23-61. Plaintiff's mother also testified. Tr. 23-61.

In a decision dated December 21, 2010, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Tr. 11-19. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council on February 10, 2011. Tr. 184-85. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on June 10, 2011, when the Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-3. Plaintiff then filed this action.

DISCUSSION

I. Jurisdiction and Scope of Review

42 U.S.C. Section 405(g) grants jurisdiction to district courts to hear claims based on the denial of Social Security benefits. When considering these cases, this section directs the Court to accept the findings of fact made by the Commissioner, provided that such findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Substantial evidence is "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). The Court's scope of review is limited to whether or not the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence in the record, and whether the Commissioner employed the proper legal standards in evaluating the Plaintiff's claim. See Monger v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (finding a reviewing Court does not try a benefits case de novo). 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 the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and is in accordance with the applicable legal standards, and moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c). Under Rule 12(c), judgment on the pleadings may be granted 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 reviewing the record, the Court is convinced that plaintiff has not set forth a plausible claim for relief, judgment on the pleadings may be appropriate. See generally Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). After reviewing the entire record, this Court finds that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and is in accordance with the applicable legal standards. Therefore, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted, and the Plaintiff's motion is denied.

II. The Commissioner's decision to deny the Plaintiff benefits was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

In his decision finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ adhered to the required 5-step sequential analysis for evaluating Social Security disability benefits claims. Tr. 11-13. The 5-step analysis requires the ALJ to consider the following:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;

(2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities;

(3) if the claimant suffers a severe impairment, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, if so, the claimant is presumed disabled;

(4) if not, the ALJ considers whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work;

(5) if the claimant's impairments prevent her from doing past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodate the claimant's residual functional capacity and vocational factors, the claimant is not disabled.

20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

In this case, the ALJ found that: (1) the Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 30, 2009 (the date of her application); (2) the Plaintiff has the following severe combination of impairments: spina bifida with hydrocephalus, hydronephrosis, headaches, asthma, depressive disorder, attention deficit disorder ("ADD"), generalized anxiety disorder, a Chiari II malformation, and obesity; (3) the Plaintiff's combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal the listed impairments in Section 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) although she had no work history, the Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light or sedentary work which requires lifting 20 pounds occasionally and/or 10 pounds frequently, sitting, standing and/or walking for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, unlimited pushing and/or pulling machinery controls, but which does not include upward pulling of over 10 pounds, or concentrated exposure to extreme heat or cold, wetness, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, or other irritants. (5) there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff, considering her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, can perform. Tr. 13-19. The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. which this Court finds was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

Medical History

Plaintiff was born with spina bifida, a congenital condition that has affected her in various ways since birth. As an infant, Plaintiff underwent surgical correction of the defect caused by spina bifida and a shunt placement to treat hydrocephalus and drain excess fluid from the area around her brain. Tr. 31, 202, 299. In May of 2006 a computed tomography (CT) scan showed there was no longer evidence of hydrocephalus. Tr. 188. In 2007, the findings of an MRI revealed a Chiari II malformation. Tr. 196.

As a result of the spina bifida, Plaintiff has a neurogenic bladder and diminished bowel control. Tr. 204. This requires her to catheterize herself multiple times daily although she reported to treating physician Dr. Stephen B. Sulkes in 2007 that she only catheterizes herself twice a day and was experiencing frequent daytime wetness. Tr. 186. She also reported she was generally dry overnight. Tr. 186. Plaintiff testified that she urinates or soils herself about three times a week. Tr. 35. In May of 2008, Nurse Practitioner Cheryl Kline of the Pediatric Urology center of Strong Memorial Hospital ("Strong") reported that Plaintiff felt she was "catheterizing more consistently" and that Plaintiff "seems to be taking more responsibility for maintaining herself in a more socially appropriate continence situation." Tr. 275. In May of 2006, 2007 and 2008 an ultrasound of Plaintiff's kidneys revealed normal functioning. Tr. 195.

Plaintiff also complains of severe headaches for which she was hospitalized on several occasions. Tr. 192, 209, 291. In September of 2007, Plaintiff left school and went to Strong emergency Department for a headache evaluation. Tr. 192, 272. A shunt series revealed a kink in her shunt near her lower ribs and a possible disconnection above the right clavicle. Tr. 192. Plaintiff's mother decided to postpone the shunt revision due to potential complications. Tr. 43, 192. In May 2007, at a yearly follow up, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Sulkes an episode of transient pain at her spina bifida surgical scar, manifesting itself as a headache. Tr. 186. She stated there had been no pain before or after this isolated episode. Tr. 186. As a result of her complaints of severe headaches, Plaintiff had a follow-up appointment in the Pediatric Neurosurgery Department at Strong on May 13, 2008 by Dr. Howard J. Silberstein who reported that Plaintiff denied "further headaches or any ...


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