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Smith v. Astrue

February 21, 2008

JOSEPH SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff brings this action under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for review of a decision of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying his claims for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits. Currently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment. The issue presented is whether substantial evidence exists to support the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") determination that plaintiff is not disabled because he retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a significant range of work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. The Court holds that this finding is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, defendant's motion will be granted and plaintiff's motion will be denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Joseph Smith is a 49-year-old man who resides in Washington, D.C. He has a high school education and no additional training. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 68, 262.) He has prior work experience as a dishwasher, inserter, driver/helper, floor waxer, and laborer.

(AR at 63, 72, 262-63.) On October 18, 2004, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits alleging that he had been disabled since March 6, 2004, due to low back pain. (AR at 17, 50-52, 62.) His claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (AR at 29-39, 250-54, 256-58.) Thereafter, he received a hearing before an ALJ, who also denied his claims. (AR at 14-24.) The Appeals Council affirmed the decision, thus adopting it as the final decision of the agency. (AR at 6-10.)

I. Evidence before the ALJ

The evidence before the ALJ consisted primarily of (1) SSA disability and function reports completed by plaintiff in connection with his applications for disability benefits; (2) medical records from plaintiff's treating neurologist, Dr. Gary Dennis, and his primary care physician, Dr. Marcus Wallace, as well as physical therapy treatment records from Greater Southeast Community Hospital; (3) a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment and a review of that assessment performed by state agency physicians; and (4) plaintiff's testimony regarding his medical condition.

Plaintiff's Disability and Function Reports. In his initial disability report in October 2004, plaintiff reported that he suffered from lower back pain. (AR at 62.) He stated that his condition limited his ability to work because it became "very pain full [sic] after a few hours standing or sitting" and that he had stopped working because it was "very hard to stand up and be productive in an 8 hour day." (AR at 62.) In an undated disability report in support of his request for a hearing before an ALJ, plaintiff indicated that sometime in March 2005, he had begun to experience numbness and cramps in his left leg, increased pain when "straightening up," and pain when straightening up after sitting "for a period of time." (AR at 101.)

In November 2004, plaintiff completed a function report in which he stated that he experienced pain when bending, lifting, squatting, standing, reaching, walking, sitting or kneeling and that the pain interfered with his ability to sleep. (AR at 85, 89.) Nevertheless, plaintiff reported that his daily activities included caring for his granddaughter while her mother was at work, cleaning the house and doing whatever chores needed to be done, driving, going for walks, shopping, and attending church. (ARat 84-92.) In an April 2005 function report, however, plaintiff stated that his daily routine consisted of doing as little as possible and lying in bed to remain comfortable. (AR at 93.) However, plaintiff also stated that he prepared meals, did laundry and went shopping approximately once a week and that his hobbies included playing ball and watching television. (AR at 95-97.) Although plaintiff stated that he did not drive, he explained that it was because he had no car. (AR at 96.)

Medical Records. Plaintiff's medical records indicate that Dr. Dennis diagnosed plaintiff with lumbar spondylosis and radiculopathy, but found the results of his neurological examinations to be essentially normal. (See AR at 113-14.) Similarly, Dr. Wallace's medical reports indicate that he diagnosed plaintiff with low back pain secondary to lumbar spondylosis and mild scoliosis; prescribed Flexeril, Motrin and Naprosyn for pain relief; and referred plaintiff to Dr. Dennis and to physical therapy for additional treatment. (AR at 117-29, 141-44.) However, Dr. Wallace's examinations of plaintiff indicate that he found plaintiff's physical condition to be essentially normal. (See AR at 117-29, 141-44.)

In December 2004, however, Dr. Dennis completed a Medical Examination Report in connection with plaintiff's applications for disability benefits in which he stated that plaintiff "has restricted [range of motion] of [his] back worsened by sitting and standing 15-30 minutes." (AR at 184.) Dr. Dennis also checked boxes on the form indicating that plaintiff's functional limitations were "moderate" (as opposed to nonexistent, mild, marked or extreme);*fn1 that plaintiff could sit for less than two hours, stand for less than two hours, and walk for less than two hours; and that plaintiff could lift or carry 10 pounds frequently and no more than 10 pounds total. (AR at 185.) The report also posed the question, "Does the patient's medical condition prevent him/her from working?" While Dr. Dennis did not answer the question directly, he did state that "[p]atient is currently 100% permanently disabled. He needs voc[ational] rehab[ilitation] and job retraining." (AR at 185.)

Dr. Wallace also completed SSA reports on plaintiff's behalf. In his November 2004 report, Dr. Wallace stated that plaintiff had "difficulty standing and walking for long periods of time," but had achieved full weight bearing and had not undergone surgery. (AR at 141.) In this same report, Dr. Wallace noted some limitations on plaintiff's spinal flexion, extension, and rotation, but no limitations on plaintiff's range of motion in his shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees or ankles. (AR at 142-43.) Dr. Wallace also noted that plaintiff's manual manipulative abilities were normal. (AR at 144.) Moreover, in December 2004, Dr. Wallace completed a Medical Examination Report in which he indicated that plaintiff experienced limitations on his abilities to walk, stand, stoop, kneel, lift, reach, push, and pull. (AR at 194.)

Plaintiff's physical therapy records reflect that while plaintiff experienced decreased mobility due to pain, his lower and upper extremity ranges of motion, strength, and balance were all within normal limits, his endurance was good, his posture was unremarkable, he exhibited full weight bearing, and he could perform all movements independently.*fn2 (AR at 155-57, 162, 175-76.)

State Agency Residual Functional Capacity Assessments. Plaintiff's records also include the findings of two state agency physicians, Drs. Isabel Pico and Currie Ball, who independently reviewed plaintiff's medical records in order to assess his RFC. In December 2004, Dr. Pico completed an SSA Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment, a form report requiring her to check boxes indicating plaintiff's various physical limitations. In that assessment, Dr. Pico found that plaintiff could occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds; frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds; stand and/or walk for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for about six hours within an eight-hour workday; push and/or pull to an unlimited degree; and occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. (AR at 145-47.) She found that plaintiff had no manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. (AR at 148-49.) Moreover, Dr. Pico indicated that while she believed that plaintiff's symptoms were attributable to a medically determinable impairment, the severity or duration of the symptoms were disproportionate to the expected severity or duration on the basis of that impairment. (AR at 150.) She indicated that her opinion was based on plaintiff's complaint of low back pain, a February 2004 x-ray of plaintiff's back, which denoted early degenerative lumbar spondylosis, and Dr. Dennis' October 2004 report stating that plaintiff's MRI demonstrated some lumbar spondylosis but that his neurological examination was within normal limits. (AR at 146-47.)

On reconsideration, Dr. Ball, a second agency physician, affirmed this assessment. (AR at 28.) In support of his decision, he referred to the bases for the original assessment, as well as to findings in plaintiff's rehabilitation services discharge summary that although plaintiff had muscle spasms, difficulty with his gait secondary to pain, and antalgic ambulation, his range of motion and strength were normal, and his endurance was good.*fn3 (AR at 181.) While noting that plaintiff's activities of daily living were restricted by his back pain, Dr. Ball nevertheless recommended that the initial RFC for light work be affirmed. (AR at 181.)

Hearing Testimony. At the hearing, plaintiff testified that he experienced pain in his lower left hip area, in the left side of his back, in his spinal area and in his knees and that the pain radiated down his left leg and caused numbness and dizziness when he stood up. (AR at 264, 269.) He stated that he took prescription Motrin, Naprosyn, and Flexeril to relieve the pain, and had received epidural steroid injections, which provided some temporary pain relief. (AR at 264-65.) Nevertheless, plaintiff testified that he continued to engage in the activities indicated in his earlier function reports, with the exception of caring for his granddaughter. (AR at 266-67.) In particular, plaintiff stated that his activities included going for walks "every now and then" and walking to the store and that he was able to walk up to a quarter mile and lift a gallon of milk and a bag of ...


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