United States District Court, S.D. New York
JOSE L. MORALES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Jose L. Morales, New York, NY, for Plaintiff (Pro Se).
Lauren Myers, Esq., Social Security Administration, Office of the General Counsel, New York, NY, Susan D. Baird, Assistant United States Attorney, U.S. Attorney's Office, SDNY, New York, NY, for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
SHIRA A. SCHEINDLIN, District Judge.
Jose Morales, proceeding prose, brings this action, pursuant to the Social Security Act (the "Act"),  seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying his claim for Social Security and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits. The Commissioner has moved for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED and the decision denying benefits is affirmed.
A. Procedural History
Morales filed an application for both Social Security and SSI disability benefits on October 18, 2010, which were denied on January 20, 2011. The applications alleged that he had been disabled since September 30, 2010, due to HIV, congenital heart disease, and chronic depression. Morales requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and ALJ Robert Dorf presided over a hearing on January 11, 2012. Morales, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. After the hearing, the record was held open for Morales to submit further documentation, which was added to the record. On March 9, 2012, the ALJ issued the decision finding that Morales is not "under a disability within the meaning of the [Act] from September 30, 2010, through the date of [the] decision." The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on May 7, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Morales's request for review of the ALJ's decision. On June 18, 2013, Morales commenced this action by filing a complaint. On February 14, 2014, the Commissioner filed the instant motion. Morales filed an affirmation in opposition to the motion on May 6, 2014, to which the Commissioner opted not to reply. The period at issue is from October 18, 2010, the date Morales filed his Social Security and SSI applications, through March 9, 2012, when the ALJ issued his decision.
B. Administrative Record
The administrative record consists of non-medical evidence, medical evidence, and hearing testimony.
1. Non-Medical Evidence
Morales is a forty-six-year-old single man who lives alone in an apartment. He was born on November 21, 1968, and was forty-one years old at the onset of his alleged disability. Morales is able to cook for himself, keep his apartment clean, and do his own food shopping. He has good relationships with friends, relatives, and other persons he comes into contact with. Prior to his alleged disability, Morales graduated both high school as well as a four-year college with a business degree. Additionally, Morales has a work history in fashion retail sales. At the ALJ hearing, Morales gave the following testimony. He was last employed in 2010 at Tang's Department Store as a custom clothing supervisor where he "create[d] garments from scratch with clients." He left this job after being fired for a "personality conflict." Prior to this position, he worked at Jayko's Corporation where he sold and designed clothing. The work was generally performed in a combination of both sitting and standing and did not require lifting more than ten pounds. Morales was similarly fired from this position for "[t]he same personality conflict" with a supervisor. Morales's work history also includes a position at Holland and Holland, a retail clothing outlet, that he left because the store went out of business. Morales testified he was looking for work at the time of the hearing, sending out resumes and contacting agencies. Morales stated that despite experiencing bouts of depression and at times feeling "listless" and "unmotivated, " he is still able to keep appointments and leave the house for interviews.
Morales noted that he has had a ventricular septal defect ("VSD") since birth, but it does not inhibit his ability to walk, perform work, or use public transportation. Additionally, he is able to lift and carry ten pounds without a problem. While surgery was recommended for the VSD, it has not been scheduled to date. Morales also testified that his HIV is under control and he is asymptomatic.
2. Medical Evidence
a. Treating Physicians
i. Dr. Punyadech Photangtham
Morales has been treated by Dr. Photangtham, a family practitioner who specializes in infectious disease medicine, from 2008 to the time of the hearing. On January 10, 2008, Morales reported to Dr. Photangtham for an initial exam and consistently visited with Dr. Photangtham for monthly follow-up visits thereafter. Dr. Photangtham reports that Morales has a past medical history of depression, a heart murmur/congenital VSD, and is HIV positive.
On September 15, 2010, Morales visited Dr. Photangtham for lab results. Morales denied having any chest pain, shortness of breath, or palpitations. Morales also denied any leg swelling or new pain. Morales reported that he was doing well.
On November 17, 2010, Morales returned for a routine visit. Morales was reportedly feeling well with no complaints. Morales reported that he had recently been laid off from work and would be working nights decorating Ralph Lauren stores for the next two weeks.
On January 26, 2011, Dr. Photangtham evaluated Morales's ability to do work-related activities. Dr. Photangtham and Joan Bryan, a clinical social worker, opined that Morales's ability to understand, remember, and carry out instructions was not affected by his mental impairment. They did however note that Morales's "depressed mood and symptoms related to social anxiety can at times interfere with [his] ability to interact appropriately with supervisors, coworkers, and the public as it causes avoidance and anxiety." They stated further that Morales's depression was being treated with Lexapro and weekly psychotherapy and that Morales was responsive.
A November 17, 2011 progress report states that Morales's cardiomegaly was stable and that Morales was also stable from a "cardiology standpoint." Morales reported that he was exercising regularly. Morales also reported experiencing worsening depression and that he had been working "off the books" on and off in fashion design.
On December 1, 2011, Morales visited with Dr. Photangtham and on examination, Morales had an absolute T4 count of 418 and his blood pressure was 118/70. Dr. Photangtham opined that Morales was not limited in sitting, standing, lifting, carrying or handling objects. Dr. Photangtham did note that due to fatigue Morales may be limited in walking but believed Morales could maintain lifting and carrying for a duration of up to six hours per day and stand/walk up to eight hours per day. Dr. Photangtham further opined that Morales did not have any limitations in traveling, understanding, ...