United States District Court, S.D. New York
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION TO THE HONORABLE PAUL G. GARDEPHE
FRANK MAAS, District Judge.
Pro se plaintiff Walter Singleton ("Singleton") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner ("Commissioner") of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Commissioner has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 19). For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that the Commissioner's motion be granted.
A. Procedural Background
On September 21, 2011, Singleton filed applications for DIB and SSI, claiming that he was disabled as of December 31, 2009. (See R. 76-84). After the Commissioner denied both applications initially on December 1, 2011, (id. at 38-43), Singleton requested a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held before ALJ Michael Friedman ("ALJ Friedman") on May 24, 2012, (see id. at 23-34). Thereafter, on June 25, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision in which he concluded that Singleton was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and, therefore, denied his application for DIB and SSI. (Id. 13-19). The ALJ's decision became final on June 4, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Singleton's request for review. (Id. at 1-6).
On June 13, 2013, Singleton commenced this action challenging the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 2). After the Commissioner timely filed her motion on February 8, 2014, Singleton's opposition papers were due by March 7, 2014. (ECF No. 17). On October 22, 2014, seven months after his opposition was due, Singleton requested, and the Court granted, an extension of time to oppose the Commissioner's motion. (ECF Nos. 24, 25). Thereafter, on November 10, 2014, Singleton submitted a two-page affirmation, asserting, essentially, that he had reviewed the Commissioner's motion and disagreed with it. (ECF No. 26 at 2). Singleton also offered to provide new medical information from a doctor, Ricardo Dunner, whose telephone number he furnished. (Id.).
B. Factual Background
1. Non-Medical Evidence
Singleton was born on July 28, 1978, making him thirty-four years old when he applied for disability benefits. (R. 76). At that time, Singleton shared an apartment in Manhattan with his family. (Id. at 116). He also reported that he had stopped working because of his "condition(s)." (Id. at 107). Although he did not graduate from high school, he received a GED in 2011. (Id. at 108).
At the hearing before ALJ Friedman, Singleton testified without the assistance of an attorney or other representative. (Id. at 25). Singleton described his most recent occupation as "environmental mediation technician, " explaining that he had worked as a "HAZMAT supervisor." (Id. at 26). In that capacity, Singleton aided in the removal of asbestos and other hazardous chemicals. (Id. at 126). Although he indicated in his benefits application that he was unable to work because of disability, (id. at 76), Singleton acknowledged in his testimony that he recently had begun working at Walgreens as a "greeter." (Id. at 29).
Singleton testified that his health took a turn for the worse during his most recent assignment as a HAZMAT supervisor. (Id. at 26). At that time, he was "rushed" to the hospital due to a swollen right ankle. Subsequently, at the recommendation of his doctor, Singleton treated the ankle pain with Aleve pills, which damaged his kidneys, resulting in renal insufficiency. (Id.). Ultimately, he "[l]ost [his] job" as a result of ankle swelling and pain. (Id. at 148). Further, because of his kidney problems, Singleton was no longer able to take pain medication to alleviate his persistent ankle pain. (Id. at 28). During his testimony, Singleton also reported that he suffered from high blood pressure, occasional chest pain, shortness of breath, and drowsiness. (Id. at 27-30). Elsewhere, Singleton reported problems sleeping. (Id. at 135, 138).
When he was asked about his current physical capabilities, Singleton testified that he was capable of lifting a five to ten pound grocery bag, standing for approximately fifteen minutes, sitting for extensive periods of time, walking for approximately thirty minutes, and assisting with shopping, cleaning, laundry, and cooking, (Id. at 30-31, 118-19). Similarly, in a function report dated October 5, 2011, Singleton reported that he was capable of using public transportation, standing for up to forty minutes, and walking for up to thirty minutes. (Id. at 121-22).
2. Medical Evidence
a. Treatment Records
The administrative record contains Singleton's treatment records from Mount Sinai Medical Center, (id. at 151-74), Beth Israel Medical Center, (id. at 175-91), and Bellevue Hospital Center, (id. at 192-203). While these records primarily focus on the treatment of Singleton's hypertension, they also address Singleton's chest pain and sleep apnea.
On July 31, 2010, Singleton underwent a battery of cardiovascular tests at Mount Sinai Hospital after reporting to the emergency room with chest pain. (Id. at 162-63, 165, 167). On August 2, Dr. Mark Harrison of Mount Sinai examined Singleton and reviewed the results of those tests. (Id. at 154-56). Singleton reported to Dr. Harrison that his chest pain, which had started ten days earlier, was "[s]harp on [his] left side, " and "highly unpredictable." (Id. at 154). Dr. Harrison found Singleton's chest x-ray to be "unremarkable." (Id.). Dr. Harrison's physical examination of Singleton similarly confirmed that he was not in any acute distress and presented with no respiratory or cardiovascular problems. (Id. at 155-56). Dr. Harrison's assessment was that Singleton had a history of hypertension and tobacco use, and presented with chest pain. He also noted that Singleton's electrocardiogram showed left ventricular hypertrophy ("LVH"). (Id. at 157). As a result, Singleton's hypertension medications were changed. (Id.).
Several days later, on August 4, 2010, Singleton was admitted to the Beth Israel Medical Center with renewed complaints of chest pain radiating to his left arm. (Id. at 186). An exercise electrocardiogram produced no evidence of myocardial ischemia, although Singleton had a hypertensive response to exercise. (Id. at 177). A report by Dr. Joseph Broudy, a radiology resident, noted that Singleton's cardiomediastinal silhouette was unremarkable and that his lungs were clear. (Id. at 188). The resident's impression was that Singleton's chest was "normal." (Id. at 191). Upon discharge after a four-day hospital stay, Singleton was given a primary diagnosis of noncardiac chest pain, and secondary diagnoses of hypertension, chronic kidney disease, tobacco and alcohol use, and obesity. (Id. at 176).
On March 19, 2011, Singleton was seen at Bellevue Hospital for abnormal blood pressure, and was diagnosed with asymptomatic hypertension. (Id. at 199). He stated that he had stopped taking his prescribed medication and was taking an herbal supplement instead. (Id.). At discharge, he was instructed to take his prescribed medication. (Id.). Singleton had a similar incident and was given similar discharge instructions in mid-June 2011. (Id. at 201-02).
Singleton was admitted to Bellevue Hospital on August 14, 2011. (Id. at 193-98, 204-09). He complained of chest pain, reported being noncompliant with his medications, and, upon admission, was given nitroglycerin. (Id. at 195, 197, 204-05). Dr. Sarah Moore, the attending physician, diagnosed Singleton with chest pain not otherwise specified and referred him to a hypertension clinic after discharge. (Id. at 205). Dr. Moore also indicated a secondary diagnosis of chronic kidney disease unspecified. (Id. at 193). On September 19, Singleton was seen at Bellevue's hypertension clinic. He was diagnosed with hypertension and his medications were adjusted. (Id. at 222).
On September 7, 2011, Singleton was evaluated by the Federal Employment and Guidance Services ("FEGS"), apparently in an effort to determine which of his conditions could be improved through rehabilitation. (See id. at 223-57). As part of his history, Singleton claimed to have been treated at Bellevue one year earlier for a mild heart attack. (Id. at 242). His physical examination was largely unremarkable, although his blood pressure was 170/110. (Id. at 228). The FEGS diagnosis was essential hypertension, hypertensive heart, and chronic kidney disease. (Id.). FEGS developed a Wellness Plan that called for the agency to monitor his compliance and progress with his medical treatment. (Id. at 253).
On November 30, 2011, Singleton was evaluated at the New York University Sleep Disorder Center. (Id. at 270-71). The evaluation by Drs. Andrew Varga and Nishay Chikara revealed that Singleton suffered from mild obstructive sleep apnea. (Id. at 270). The doctors noted, however, that Singleton responded well to a continuous positive airway pressure machine ("CPAP"). Drs. Varga and Chikara recommended that Singleton begin using a CPAP, pursue weight loss, and "avoid driving or other critical tasks requiring sustained vigilance" until his daytime somnolence resolved. (Id. at 270-71).
On February 2, 2012, Dr. Varun Verma of Bellevue Hospital completed a Treating Physician's Wellness Plan Report for the New York City Human Resources Administration. (Id. at 293-94). Dr. Verma diagnosed Singleton with hypertension and chest pains. (Id. at 293). Dr. Verma noted that Singleton had a normal physical exam, stress test, and electrocardiogram ("EKG"). (Id.). Dr. Verma further noted that Singleton was taking prescribed medication and was compliant with his other types of treatment. (Id.). Dr. Verma reported that Singleton continued to have "severe chest pain... on exertion, " as well as "severe high blood pressure, " for which he was taking three medications. (Id.). Dr. Verma indicated that Singleton presented an "unclear etiology of symptoms." (Id. at 294). Based on a physical examination and a chart review, Dr. Verma assessed Singleton's functional capacity as "[e]mployable with work limitations, " including "no heavy lifting, " "no manual labor, " and "no tasks that require [him to be] on his feet or constantly moving [or] walking." (Id.).
On April 10, 2012, Dr. Jennifer Knishinsky of Bellevue Hospital wrote a "To Whom it May Concern" letter in which she noted that Singleton had "chronic right ankle pain" and "swelling secondary to multiple injuries to the ankle over time." (Id. at 292). Dr. Knishinsky recommended that Singleton not perform "any work involving heavy lifting, manual labor, or long periods of standing or walking, " to prevent further injuring his ankle. (Id.). On June 8, Singleton went to Bellevue and was diagnosed with right ankle and foot pain. (Id. at 299). A nurse practitioner recommended two days of bed rest. (Id. at 298-99). The following week, on June 14, 2012, Dr. Verma prepared a note in which he stated that Singleton was "not able to bear weight on the RIGHT side without excruciating pain." (Id. at 297) (capitalization in original). ...