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Ross v. Astrue

July 24, 2009

SOLOMON ROSS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Solomon Ross, the plaintiff in this civil lawsuit, seeks a judgment reversing the denial of his application for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits by the Social Security Administration (the "Administration").*fn1 Complaint ¶ 4. Currently before the Court is the plaintiff's motion for a judgment of reversal or remand and the defendant's motion for a judgment of affirmance, which were filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After carefully considering the plaintiff's complaint, the administrative record, the parties' motions, and all memoranda of law and exhibits relating to those motions,*fn2 the Court concludes that it must grant the plaintiff's motion, deny the defendant's motion, and remand this case to the Administration with instructions for the reasons that follow.

I. Background

Except where otherwise noted, the following facts are part of the administrative record submitted to the Court. The plaintiff, a carpenter by trade, Administrative Record (the "A.R.") at 55, 59, 135--36, filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits on July 8, 1998, based on his alleged inability to work since injuring his right leg in January of 1989, id. at 12. According to the plaintiff, he was diagnosed with patellofemoral arthritis at that time, which required knee surgery. Pl.'s Mem. at 2. He alleges that since his injury, he continues to live with "chronic pain, crepitation, decreased range of motion, atrophy, and join line tenderness." Id.

The Administration denied the plaintiff's application on August 27, 1998, id. at 1, and affirmed its decision on reconsideration, id. at 2. The plaintiff then sought a hearing for the review of his application. Id. This request was granted, and on July 18, 2000, the plaintiff attended a hearing before an administrative law judge (the "ALJ"). Id.

At the hearing before the ALJ, the plaintiff presented evidence in the form of medical advice from four doctors, who generally agreed that, as a result of his injury, the plaintiff suffered from patellar femoral degeneration and pain in his right knee. A.R. at 14. However, the doctors did not discover any visual abnormalities, and the x-ray images did not reveal any "problem with the undersurface of [the plaintiff's] patella." Id. at 76. The doctors also concluded that some of the plaintiff's symptoms were "voluntary," and that his condition would not improve unless he developed a "more positive attitude." Id. A vocational expert also testified as to the availability of employment in the national economy for a hypothetical individual with the same education, physical impairments, and labor skills as the plaintiff. Id. at 18--19.

Following the hearing, the ALJ ruled against the plaintiff, finding that, although the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 27, 1989, and the condition of the plaintiff's right knee qualified as a "severe impairment," this impairment did not meet or equal a listing in the Appendix of disabling medical conditions maintained by the Administration. Id. at 19-20. Further, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff's residual functional capacity allowed him to engage in a limited range of medium work, and that, as a consequence, the plaintiff did not meet the statutory definition of "disabled" based upon the range of employment options available to him under the relevant Medical-Vocational Guidelines. Id. at 21. The ALJ also denied the plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits because the disability did not exist, in his opinion, "on or before the date [the plaintiff's] insured status expired." Id. at 20.

In light of the ALJ's decision, the plaintiff sought to appeal the denial of his claim to the Social Security Administration Appeals Council (the "Appeals Council"). Id. at 118. The Appeals Council denied his request on February 22, 2002. Id. at 4-5. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed his complaint in this Court.

The plaintiff filed his motion for judgment of reversal or remand on August 20, 2002. In support of that motion, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in performing the fifth step of the five-step evaluation process set forth by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920, which requires the ALJ to determine whether a claimant is capable of performing "other work" notwithstanding his impairment, Pl.'s Mem. at 7; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g) (setting forth this requirement), id. § 416.920(g) (same). Specifically, he asserts that the ALJ (1) relied upon certain testimony by the vocational expert that conflicted with the applicable Medical-Vocational Guidelines governing the expert's findings, Pl.'s Mem. at 7--9, and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, id. at 9, (2) failed to assess the plaintiff's residual functional capacity in the manner prescribed by the Administration, id. at 11--13, or "provide any rationale for failing to find some restriction upon [the p]laintiff's abilities to walk or stand," id. at 11, and (3) erred in finding that the plaintiff's testimony regarding the subjective degree of pain that he suffered was incredible, id. at 13--16.

In response to the plaintiff's motion for a judgment of reversal or remand, the defendant filed a cross-motion for judgment of affirmance on September 30, 2002.*fn3 In support of his cross-motion, the defendant argues that (1) the testimony of the vocational expert relied upon by the ALJ did not contradict the applicable Medical-Vocational Guidelines considering the age of the plaintiff when his disability insurance expired, Def.'s Mem. at 11--12, and any contradiction between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles was "harmless error," id. at 16--17, and (2) the ALJ's findings regarding the plaintiff's residual functional capacity "finds ample support in the medical evidence of record, as well as in [the] plaintiff's own testimony," id. at 12. The defendant does not address the plaintiff's argument regarding the ALJ's credibility determination of the plaintiff. See id. at 11--17 (arguing only that the ALJ properly relied upon the vocational expert's testimony and that there is substantial support in the record for the ALJ's findings regarding the plaintiff's residual functional capacity). In response to the defendant's cross-motion, the plaintiff reiterates his prior arguments regarding the vocational expert's testimony and the ALJ's findings with respect to the plaintiff's residual functional capacity. Pl.'s Response at 1--7.

II. Standard of Review

As noted above, both parties seek relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under that statute, a court reviewing a benefits determination by the Administration is "confined to determining whether the [Administration's] decision . . . [was] supported by substantial evidence in the record." Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705 (D.C. Cir. 1986). With respect to the Administration's factual determinations, the "substantial evidence" requirement mandates that the Administration's findings be supported by "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). The standard requires "more than a scintilla, but . . . something less than a preponderance of the evidence." Evans Fin. Corp. v. Director, 161 F.3d 30, 34 (D.C. Cir. 1998).

With respect to the Administration's legal rulings, "the [district] court shall review only the question of conformity" by the Administration to its own regulations as well as "the validity of such regulations." 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). Thus, the reviewing court must uphold the Administration's legal "determination if it . . . is not tainted by an error of law." Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1987). However, a court may only consider the grounds proffered by the ...


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