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Wells v. Astrue

July 30, 2009


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


Leon Wells, 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 judgment of reversal or remand and the defendant's motion for judgment of affirmance, both 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 former letter carrier for the United States Postal Service, Administrative Record (the "A.R.") at 41, injured his back on October 12, 1991, as a result of lifting a tray of magazines while engaged in performing his job responsibilities. Id. Three years later, the plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging that he had been unable to work after September 2, 1992 due to the condition of his back. Id. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged at that time that he suffered from "lumbar disc herniations . . . with an associated lumbar spinal stenosis," resulting in "chronic low back pain syndrome with bilateral lower extremity radiculopathy." Id. Based upon the evidence adduced by the plaintiff in support of his claims, he was awarded benefits for a "closed period" from September 2, 1992, until June 30, 1995, "the close of the second month following the month in which [his] disability ceased." Id. at 44.

The plaintiff's return to work proved to be short-lived, as on May 4, 1999, he filed renewed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental social security income benefits, alleging that the "lumbar strain" and "bad disc in his back" prevented him from working since June 2, 1997. Id. at 24. The Administration denied these claims on January 6, 2000. Id. Thereafter, the plaintiff requested a review of this decision and an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Id. This request was eventually granted, and a hearing was convened on August 11, 2000, at which both the plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. Id.

At the hearing before the ALJ, the plaintiff testified that "he could sit or stand for only [five] to [ten] minutes," could only "walk [one] block," and could only "lift about [five] pounds." Id. at 30. He complained of moderate to severe "low back and groin pain, as well as pain down his left leg and sometimes his right leg," for which his "pain medication did not work." Id. Consequently, the plaintiff testified that he was forced to "lie down for the pain" with a heating pad, usually "a couple of times a week for [five] to [six] hours," though "a couple of times a month [the] pain prevented him from standing up" at all. Id. Finally, "[i]n response to questions by his attorney, the [plaintiff] volunteered that his back problem[] 'interfered with his manhood,' result[ing] in sexual dysfunction." Id.

At the same time, the plaintiff admitted that, despite his back condition, "he did the dishes, swept, did some dusting, vacuumed, and washed his own clothes." Id. at 29. He also occasionally "attended school events" for his four sons, "took them swimming" and to "an amusement park," and "went on family outings" with them. Id. Further, the plaintiff testified that "he was dating and [that] he had taken trips to St. Croix[] and to Atlantic City." Id.

Based upon this testimony, the ALJ found as a factual matter that the plaintiff had exaggerated his "claimed limitations," observing that it was "silly" for the plaintiff to assert that he could not sit or stand for more than [five] to [ten] minutes at a time when he "acknowledged travel[ing] to Atlantic City and St. Croix with his companion." Id. at 30. Thus, while the ALJ acknowledged the plaintiff's "long history of lumbosacral spine muscle spasms, tenderness[,] and limited motion," as well as the "diagnostic findings of L5-S1 stenosis, with herniated nucleus pulposus at L5-S1, and bilateral L5 radiculopathy accompanied by left shoulder limitations," he concluded that the plaintiff "[did] not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in" the Administration's listing of impairments because "[the plaintiff's] description of his limitations as a result of those disorders . . . [was] not fully credible." Id. at 35. Further, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff "ha[d] the residual functional capacity to perform a range of unskilled work at the light exertional level within named limitations," id., and that based upon the plaintiff's age at the time of the hearing, educational background, and the testimony of the vocational expert, "there [were] a significant number of jobs in the national economy [that] he could perform," id. at 36. The ALJ therefore concluded that the plaintiff did not suffer from a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act "at any time from June 2, 1997, through the date of [his] decision." Id.

The plaintiff appealed unsuccessfully for a review of his claim by the Administration's Appeals Council. Id. at 5. Following the rejection of his appeal, the plaintiff filed his complaint in this Court on July 8, 2002. Per the briefing schedule agreed to by the parties, the plaintiff filed his motion for judgment of reversal or remand on November 12, 2002, to which the defendant responded with his motion for motion for judgment of affirmance on December 12, 2002.*fn3

In support of his motion for judgment of reversal or remand, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred both procedurally and factually in concluding that the plaintiff's impairments do not equal any of the Administration's listed impairments, and must be reversed. Pl.'s Mem. at 7--10. Further, the plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to accord sufficient deference to the medical opinion of the plaintiff's treating physicians or to adequately explain why such deference was not required. Id. at 10--14. The plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ erred in relying upon the testimony of the vocational expert with respect to the types of jobs that the plaintiff was hypothetically capable of performing and erred in assessing his residual functional capacity. Id. at 14--19. Finally, the plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's assessment of the plaintiff's credibility, which he finds "erroneous as a matter of law" and "not supported by the record as a whole." Id. at 23.

In response, the defendant concedes that "the ALJ failed to state which listing he considered and failed to find specifically that [the] plaintiff's condition did not meet or equal [that] listing," Def.'s Mem. at 10, but suggests that this finding is implicit in the ALJ's analysis and that substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's conclusions with respect to the lack of equivalency between the plaintiff's medical condition and the conditions listed by the Administration, id. at 10--12. The defendant further argues that the ALJ relied upon substantial evidence in the record in disregarding the opinions of the plaintiff's treating physicians, id. at 12--14, and that it is "beyond reasonable dispute that the vocational expert's testimony provides substantial evidence in support of the [ALJ's] determination that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the [Social Security] Act," id. at 19. The defendant also contends that there is "ample support in the medical record, a[s] well as in [the] plaintiff's own testimony," to support the ALJ's findings as to the plaintiff's credibility and his residual functional capacity. Id. at 15.

II. Standard of Review

As noted above, both parties seek relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under this 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, Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, 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) (2006). 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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