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Beach v. Commissioner of Social Security

August 2, 2012

INESSA LEONTYEVNA BEACH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jesse M. Furman, United States District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Inessa Leonyevna Beach brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") finding her ineligible for both Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits and widow's insurance benefits as of September 30, 2009.*fn1 Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In his papers, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. In hers, Beach argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred as a matter of law by (1) failing to develop the record at the hearing; (2) providing a vocational expert with an incomplete hypothetical; and (3) failing to accord the proper weight to the opinions of her treating physicians.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, the Court grants the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings and denies Plaintiff's cross-motion.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 20, 2008, Beach filed an application for disabled widow's benefits. (AR 88).*fn2 Ten days later, she filed another application for SSI disability benefits. (Id.). In both applications, Beach alleged she was disabled as of January 1, 1995. (Id.).On July 28, 2008, both claims were denied on initial administrative review. (AR 132-36, 138-41). At Beach's request, a hearing was held before an ALJ on September 10, 2009; although Beach is represented by counsel before this Court, she appeared pro se at the hearing. (AR 142-44, 97-129). At the hearing, the ALJ considered, among other things, the testimony of Beach; a vocational expert, Miriam Green; and two medical experts, Dr. Joseph Vitolo (a psychiatrist) and Dr. Allan Levine (an orthopedist). (AR 97-129). On September 30, 2009, the ALJ, considering the case de novo, determined that Beach was not disabled and therefore not eligible to receive benefits. (AR 85-96). On January 25, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Beach's request to review the ALJ's decision, thus rendering it the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3). See Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59, 61 (2d Cir. 1999).

BACKGROUND

The following facts are taken from the administrative record and are undisputed. Beach was born in Moscow, Russia, in October 1956, and is fluent in both English and Russian. (AR 106, 108). She married in February 1979 and came to the United States in October of that year as a lawful permanent resident. (AR 106, 188, 190). In the 1990s, she and her husband, Leslie Lloyd Beach, separated, and he died in 1998. (AR 101, 178). Beach has been homeless on and off since the early 1990s and continuously since 2000. (AR 178). In the years prior to the ALJ hearing, she had occasional "off the books" jobs (for example, cooking), but her last "on the books" job was in 1993 working as a waitress. (AR 109-10, 181). She worked as a dispatcher for a car service in 1992. (AR 181). According to Beach, she became unable to work because of her disability on January 1, 1995. (AR 181).

A.Beach's Testimony and Statements

At the September 10, 2009 hearing, Beach testified that she suffers from joint pain - mostly in her feet, but also in her hips and, more recently, in her elbow. (AR 110, 112). She said the pain increases the longer she stands and that she cannot sit for more than two or three hours at a time before experiencing numbness in her hip and in her extremities. (AR 110-11). She stated that she could probably stand for two to three hours, but not without effort (AR 111), and that she could walk ten to twenty blocks at most. (Id.). Beach further testified that, while she can still lift things, she could no longer carry weight well (AR 111-12), and that a rheumatologist had told her she had carpal tunnel syndrome in her hands. (AR 113).

The ALJ asked Beach if she had any psychiatric problems. (AR 113). Beach testified that she had never received mental health treatment and that she believed she was normal. (Id.).She added, however, that she was "generally paranoid toward doctors." (Id.).

In a June 2008 report Beach submitted to the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), Beach wrote that she spent most of her days reading. (AR 193). She further stated that she sometimes visited her doctors and social workers. (Id.).She reported that she visited Jan Hus Church to check her mail, make phone calls, and take a bath when possible. (Id.).Beach explained in the report that while she had been a great walker, she could, at the time of the report, barely walk three blocks to get food. (Id.).She stated that all walking was painful (to varying degrees), and that both standing and sitting were problematic. (AR 195).

B.Beach's Medical History Prior to the Hearing

On September 10, 2000, Beach sought treatment at New York Presbyterian Hospital ("NYPH") due to a cut she received between her fourth and fifth toes from stepping on an object in the park. (AR 218). The attending physician noted a blister with mild swelling and mild tenderness. (Id.).The physician advised Beach to change the dressing on the cut as instructed and prescribed a topical antibiotic. (Id.).

On May 9, 2002, Beach again sought treatment at NYPH complaining of burning pain in both feet from the instep through the calf. She reported that the pain had begun two months earlier and that it was worse in her left foot than in her right foot. (AR 221). Beach told the physician that there was no joint swelling, and no numbness, tingling, or weakness in her legs. (AR 222). The physician noted that Beach had no significant past medical history. Beach complained of pain while the physician examined the fibrous tissue of the sole of her foot and when the physician moved her foot toward her lower leg. (Id.).Beach was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis and prescribed an anti-inflammatory and heel inserts for her shoes. (Id.).*fn3

Four months later, on September 14, 2002, Beach returned to NYPH complaining of joint pain and a pain in her foot that she believed was caused by either stepping on a piece of glass or an insect bite. (AR 223). The attending physician removed a calloused papule on the sole of Beach's foot. She reported an improvement of her symptoms thereafter. (AR 224).

Beach was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis a second time (as well as athlete's foot) on April 18, 2003. (AR 225-27). The attending physician noted that Beach's ankles and feet had a full range of motion and that she had a normal gait. (AR 227). Beach was prescribed Motrin and an antifungal cream for her foot condition. (Id.).She was prescribed the same cream the following year on May 4, 2004, when she returned to NYPH complaining of athlete's foot that had persisted for over a month. (AR 228-30).

On August 4, 2004, Beach was admitted to the emergency room at NYPH for intermittent fevers over the previous two months and joint pain. (AR 232). Beach complained of mosquito bites and asked to be tested for the West Nile Virus. (AR 233). She was diagnosed with "malaise." (AR 234). The physician observed that Beach's symptoms were likely secondary to perimenopause. (Id.).

Beach returned to NYPH on January 3, 2005, complaining of an earache and buzzing in her ear that lasted two days. (AR 235). She also complained of upper respiratory congestion. (Id.).She was diagnosed with an earache in her left ear and prescribed antibiotics and ibuprofen for the pain. (AR 237).

Beach's next visit to NYPH was on August 11, 2006, when she complained of an itchy rash on her legs, back, and torso. (AR 238). The attending physician observed a "scant distribution" of scattered eczematous papules on her lower abdomen and thighs. (AR 239). The physician diagnosed her with eczematous eruption secondary to contact dermatitis and prescribed hydrocortisone cream. (AR 240).

On April 20, 2007, Beach went to New York Hospital -- Cornell Medical Center ("NYHCMC") for further evaluation and management of joint pain. (AR 281). She reported pain in her hips (though not at that moment), lower back, left elbow, and ankle (sometimes). (Id.).She described the pain as diffuse and of a waxing and waning nature. She said the worst pain was in her left foot but that it improved with aspirin. (Id.).She also complained of swelling in her foot and leg that improved when she lied down. (Id.).She denied having any pain in her hands.

(Id.).The physician, Dr. Shahryar Saba, noted that Beach was moderately disheveled with an odor. (AR 282). She had full range of motion in her ankles and hips and there was no evidence of erythema, swelling, tenderness, or warmth in her ankles or toes. (Id.).*fn4 The soles of her feet, however, had mild erythema and tenderness. (Id.).The physician's impression was mild musculoskeletal pain and plantar fasciitis. Dr. Saba found no evidence of systematic joint disorder. (Id.).

Beach returned to Dr. Saba on June 18, 2007, complaining of bilateral ankle pain when she walked and swelling when she walked for long periods of time. (AR 284). She requested a letter stating that she could not work. (Id.).Dr. Saba observed that Beach was relatively well groomed, clean, and without odors. (Id.).Dr. Saba's impression was possible osteoarthritis. (Id.).He noted, however, that if there was ...


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