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Glass v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. New York

October 21, 2014

DONALD GLASS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


WILLIAM G. YOUNG, District Judge.[1]


Donald Glass ("Glass") brings this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner")[2] denying him disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Glass challenges the determination of an Administrative Law Judge (the "hearing officer") that Glass is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Glass requests that the Court reverse the decision and order a calculation of benefits in accordance with the requirements of the Social Security Act, or, alternatively, vacate the decision and remand the matter for further proceedings. Compl. 5-6, ECF No. 1; Pl.'s Br. 21, ECF No. 13. The Commissioner requests that the Court grant her motion for judgment on the pleadings and affirm her decision that Glass is not entitled to disability insurance benefits.[3] Mem. Law Supp. Acting Comm'r's Mot. J. Pleadings ("Comm'r's Mem.") 1, ECF No. 15.

A. Procedural Posture

Glass applied for DIB and SSI on October 5, 2009, with a protective filing date of the same day.[4] Admin. R. 98, 107. On February 4, 2010, the Regional Commissioner denied Glass's claim. Id. at 66-72. Glass timely filed a request on February 9, 2010, for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge to challenge the Regional Commissioner's denial. Id. at 74-75. A hearing was held on November 2, 2010, at which Glass appeared accompanied by legal aid counsel. Id. at 17, 30-63. On January 6, 2011, the hearing officer issued a decision ruling Glass not disabled and upholding the denial of benefits. Id. at 14-25. Glass timely filed a request on March 1, 2011, for the Social Security Appeals Council to review the hearing officer's decision. Id. at 12-13. On June 26, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Glass's request for review. Id. at 1-6.

On August 27, 2012, Glass filed the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sections 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Compl. 1, 6. The Commissioner filed an answer on May 15, 2013, Def.'s Answer, ECF No. 8, and both sides subsequently filed briefs with the Court, Pl.'s Br; Comm'r's Mem. On June 25, 2013, the case was reassigned to this Court. Order Reassigning Case, ECF No. 12.

B. Factual Background

Glass was born in 1982 and was twenty-seven years old when he applied for benefits. See Admin. R. 100. Glass graduated from high school with an Individualized Education Program (the "individualized program") diploma, due to learning disability. Id. at 38; see also id. at 399-402, 407-412. He also took a vocational course in auto mechanics. Id. at 39. He began working a variety of jobs involving manual labor, including working as an auto mechanic. See id. According to Glass, his ailments always interfered with his work. Id. at 41, 150. In 2008, he worked for some months inflating bounce houses at Bounce Around, Inc., and was laid off at the end of the summer season. Id. at 133, 150-151. Following his departure from Bounce Around, he was let go from his position as a tire technician from Kost Tire[5] in Saratoga, New York, after having his pacemaker replaced in December 2008. Compl. 3; Admin. R. 40-41. He has not worked since this time. Admin. R. 41.

1. Impairments

a. Physical Disability

The primary physical ailments for which Glass has sought medical treatment are Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (a defect in the heart's electric conduction system) and a separate defect in his mitral valve. Compl. 4. In a report dated June 2000 - when Glass was seventeen years old - Dr. James J. O'Brien ("Dr. O'Brien"), Glass's treating physician, stated that by then Glass had already undergone "three separate ablations from an endocardial approach, " all of which were unsuccessful in fixing the problems these defects created in his heart's rhythms. Admin. R. 232.

According to a report signed by Dr. Matthew Farina ("Dr. Farina"), dated March 2003, Glass "had a congenitally abnormal cleft mitral valve which was initially repaired in Boston, but because of progressive severe insufficiency following surgery[, ] mitral valve replacement was carried out at Albany Medical Center Hospital in June of 2000." Id. at 224. Following the valve replacement, however, Glass continued to experience cardiac problems, leading to an ablation in May 2001. Id.

In 2004 and the following years, his health appeared to stabilize. See id. at 247-254. By the end of 2007, Dr. O'Brien observed that Glass had been absent for over a year and a half, had not been taking his medication, and had been smoking, but still felt well. Id. at 258. Dr. O'Brien then explained to Glass the importance of both not smoking and taking his medication. Id. at 259. On January 3, 2008, Glass complained of some fatigue with work and had the pacemaker generator replaced, being discharged home in stable condition the following day. Id. at 261, 263, 266. Twelve days after his discharge, Glass was seen by Dr. O'Brien, who then noted Glass was "doing very well." Id. at 270.

On October 11, 2008, however, Glass received treatment at the Saratoga Hospital, during an episode of heart unrest that caused lightheadedness and shortness of breath. Id. at 237. Dr. Todd Duthaler ("Dr. Duthaler") noted that Glass had complained that the episode had begun two days before. Id. Dr. Duthaler stated that the initial cardiac monitor showed tachycardia at approximately 200 beats per minute. Id. at 238. After some failed attempts with different medications, the heart rhythm was finally controlled. See id. Glass was then discharged against medical advice. Id.

Nine days later, Glass consulted with Dr. O'Brien, who observed that, apart from that episode, Glass was feeling well. Id. at 272. On May 18, 2009, Glass visited Dr. O'Brien again, complaining of palpitations at home. Id. at 365. Dr. O'Brien commented that Glass was having "recurrent episodes of atrial fibrillation." Id. at 366. On March 11, 2010, Dr. O'Brien noted that Glass was stable, although "[h]is blood pressure [was] up a little bit." Id. at 364. During another consultation, dated August 25, 2010, the doctor observed that Glass would be a "[p]otential candidate for disability since the stress of work seem[ed] to make his arrhythmias worse." Id. at 362. Dr. O'Brien also noted that Glass was "short of breath with any activity and [had] easy fatigability." Id. On December 15, 2010, Dr. O'Brien wrote that "[Glass was] still bothered by stress and physical exertion" and "encouraged him to start walking more." Id. at 539.[6]

b. Learning Disability

It is not clear when Glass's learning disability was detected but, starting in 1997, Glass was included in the special education individualized program in the Ballston Spa Central School District (the "school"). Id. at 499-500. From that point until March 2001, there is robust documentation regarding Glass's progress under the program. See id. at 407-507. Usually, the assessments would grade his development under the rubrics "good progress"[7] or "some progress." See, e.g., id. at 470-486.

During that period, Pamela R. Lott ("Ms. Lott"), the school psychologist, twice evaluated Glass. She made her first evaluation in April 1997. Id. at 403-406. Ms. Lott noted that Glass had attended the school since kindergarten, and that "[a] second grade retention and placement in inclusion classes for grades 3-5 [were] noted in his school records." Id. at 403. On her evaluation, Ms. Lott placed Glass within the low average range of cognitive skills, noting also "[a] significantly low Distractibility Index... [which] suggest[s] weaknesses on tasks that require attention and concentration." Id. at 406. She also observed a discrepancy "between his mathematical skills versus the language-based academics, " noting that his delay in the latter was more accentuated than in the former. Id. Finally, she found Glass to have a normal social-emotional profile, id. at 405, being sensitive about his reading disability while taking pride on his mechanical ability and artistic interests. Id. at 405-406.

Toward the end of 1999, Ms. Lott reevaluated Glass. Id. at 399-402. Her conclusions did not vary much from the previous assessment. She placed his "overall intellectual development within the Low Average range, " and his "cognitive skills... at Low Average to Average levels, with no significant interscale discrepancy." Id. at 402. She also noted "an intra-individual strength in mathematics, " while Glass's "[a]cademic skills in language arts (i[.]e. reading, writing) [were] significantly delayed, assessed at a first to second grade equivalent." Id. Finally, she found Glass to have "a well-adjusted profile, " being a cooperative and socially appropriate adolescent. Id.

2. Other Evidence in the Record

a. Dr. Coronado's Assessment

The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance ("NYOTDA") referred Glass to Dr. Javier Coronado ("Dr. Coronado"), who performed a medical assessment on December 15, 2009. Id. at 276-277. In his evaluation, Dr. Coronado noted the following: (i) Glass "does not experience any chest pains or palpitations"; (ii) "[h]e is able to walk a couple of blocks without difficulty as well as climb a couple of flights of stairs"; (iii) he "cannot lift heavy things or participate in strenuous activities"; (iv) it had been "months' since [the] last attack"; and (v) Glass used to have "[a]bout two attacks per year." Id. at 277. Dr. Coronado concluded that the overall prognosis was good, and that "[Glass] ha[d] no limitations sitting, standing, bending, kneeling, reaching, handling objects, hearing, seeing or speaking. [He] ha[d] mild limitations walking, climbing stairs, lifting and carrying." Id. at 280.

b. Dr. Kuntz's Assessment

The NYOTDA also referred Glass to Dr. Todd Kuntz ("Dr. Kuntz"), who performed another medical assessment focused on Glass's cognitive impairment on January 9, 2010. See id. at 284-290. After performing a series of tests, Dr. Kuntz concluded that Glass: (i) "appear[ed] to be capable of understanding and following simple to moderately complex verbal instructions"; (ii) "appear[ed] to be able of performing some complex tasks independently"; (iii) was fairly able "to sustain attention and concentration"; (iv) "appear[ed] to have the ability to regularly attend a routine and maintain a schedule"; and (v) "appear[ed] to be able to relate and interact appropriately with others." Id. at 288. Furthermore, Dr. Kuntz observed that Glass seemed "intellectually capable of managing his funds in his best interests, but may need assistance in writing checks or budgeting due to his math difficulties." Id. at 288-89. Finally, Dr. Kuntz established a poor prognosis for improvement, noting that Glass's "cognitive status is not likely to spontaneously improve." Id. at 289.

c. Dr. Ferrin's Assessment

On January 26, 2010, at the request of the NYOTDA, Dr. Ferrin[8] completed a "Psychiatric Review Technique" form regarding Glass's mental impairment. Id. at 291-303. Dr. Ferrin checked a box on the evaluation form to indicate that Glass's impairment was "[n]ot [s]evere." Id. at 291. Dr. Ferrin categorized Glass's impairment as an "[a]ffective [d]isorder." Id. Regarding such a disorder, Dr. Ferrin checked a stating that "[a] medically determinable impairment is present that does not precisely satisfy the diagnostic criteria [listed] above" on the form. Id. at 294. Finally, Dr. Ferrin marked "[n]one" or "[n]ever" for Glass's functional limitations as to (i) restriction of activities of daily living; (ii) difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (iii) ...

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