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Pinkney v. Astrue

December 18, 2009

GEREL PINKNEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the Court on plaintiff's motion for judgment of reversal of the defendant's final administrative decision denying plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. Upon consideration of plaintiff's motion [13] for judgment of reversal, the defendant's motion as corrected [19, 20, 21] for judgment of affirmance, the applicable law, and the entire record herein, the Court concludes that plaintiff's motion is DENIED and defendant's motion is GRANTED. The Court's reasoning is discussed below.

BACKGROUND

I. Procedural Background

Plaintiff, Gerel Pinkney filed for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security income Benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on July 3, 2003. (Tr. 13.) Plaintiff alleged disability based on HIV infection and paranoia. (Id.) Plaintiff modified the onset date of his disabilities at his administrative hearing from March 1, 1998 and July 1, 2003 to February 11, 2004. (Id.) Initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff's claims were denied. (Id.) A requested hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on August 3, 2005, and plaintiff was again denied benefits in a decision dated September 22, 2005. (Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal at 2.) "On April 21, 2006, the Appeals Council determined there was no basis for granting the Request for Review," id., "rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner." (Def.'s Mot. for Affirmance at 2.) Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review.

II. Factual Background

Plaintiff is a 53 year old man (as of January 22, 2009) with an eighth-grade education and a general equivalency diploma. (Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal at 2.) Plaintiff argues that he is disabled due to being HIV positive and paranoid. (Id. at 1.) After undergoing an intake interview at Community Connections on February 21, 2003 plaintiff was diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoid type, and cocaine and alcohol dependence in early full remission. (Tr. 119, 123.) Noting these diagnoses, a Disability Determination physician completed a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment on July 9, 2003, finding plaintiff to be capable of work at all exertional levels. (Id. 144-150.) On October 31, 2003 plaintiff visited Community Connections for an episode of alcohol/drug abuse and it was noted at this time that plaintiff had never been hospitalized for mental health. (Id. 158.) On February 6, 2004, plaintiff went in for a consultative psychological evaluation. (Id. 178-181.) At this time it was noted that plaintiff had been incarcerated a series of times, had worked mainly as a construction worker, there were some residuals of a thought disturbance, and plaintiff's IQ results ranged from a score of 68 to 79, putting plaintiff between the "mentally deficient and borderline range of intellectual activity." (Id.; Def.'s Mot. of Affirmance at 4.) On February 27, 2004 a psychiatrist completed a Psychiatric Review Technique form and a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment after reviewing plaintiff's records. (Tr. 184-201.) The psychiatrist noted that plaintiff remained "mentally capable of performing routine tasks if abstaining from substances and compliant with treatment." (Id. 200.) Further, plaintiff was found to be only moderately limited in daily living activities, maintaining social functioning, and maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (Id. 194; Def.'s Mot. of Affirmance at 4.) On July 9, 2004, a second Residual Functional Capacity Assessment was completed and this examiner found plaintiff was able to lift 100 pounds or more occasionally and 50 pounds or more frequently; plaintiff can sit, stand, and walk about 6 hours out of 8 hours in a day, push and/or pull to an unlimited degree; and plaintiff is able to climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (Tr. 207-214.)

In the past plaintiff has worked as a laborer-working only at the substantial gainful activity level since 1970 in 1994 and 1996. (Id.) Plaintiff testified that he currently works with a temporary job agency working whenever there is a job available. (Id. 237-38.) A vocational expert ("VE"), Martin Kranitz, testified that plaintiff's past work appeared to be unskilled and medium exertional work. (Id. 248-49.) During his testimony the VE was asked a series of hypothetical questions by the ALJ in regards to plaintiff. (Id. 249-254.) Ultimately, the VE concluded that even with limitations there were numerous jobs available locally and nationally for plaintiff to perform. (Id.)

The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the meaning of the Social Security Act based on the belief that even with limitations, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the exertional demands of medium work. (Id. 10-23.) The ALJ limited the jobs to those not requiring climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, exposure to hazardous heights, hazardous moving machinery, and extreme temperature changes. However, it was determined that plaintiff was capable of occasionally climbing stairs and ramps, balancing, stooping, kneeling, and crouching. Further, plaintiff "was limited to low stress routine work, with moderate limitations as to performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular attendance, being punctual within customary tolerances, accepting instructions, and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors." (Pl.'s Mot. for J of Reversal at 3; Tr. 10-23.)

DISCUSSION

There is substantial evidence on the record to support the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff was not disabled under the meaning of the Social Security Act.

I. Legal Standard for Review of Final Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security

The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) gives federal district courts jurisdiction over civil cases that challenge the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court does not review the decision de novo, Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986), but rather limits its review of the Commissioner's decision to whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence "requires more than a scintilla, but can be satisfied by something less than a preponderance of the evidence." Fla. Mun. Power Agency v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm'n, 315 F.3d 362, 365-66 (D.C. Cir. 2003); see also Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390, 401 (defining "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion"). "In seeking judicial review of a final determination of the Social Security Commission, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that the Commissioner's decision is not based on substantial evidence or that incorrect legal standards were applied. Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 122 (2d Cir. 2000); Jones v. Shalala, 1994 WL 776887 (D.D.C. August 31, 1994) at **2." Lane-Rauth v. Barnhart, 437 F. Supp. 2d 63, 64 (D.D.C. 2006).

The reviewing court must give considerable deference to the Commissioner's decision but remains obligated to ensure that the decision was based on "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]); see also Richardson, 402 U.S. at 389. Therefore, this standard of review requires the Court to carefully scrutinize the entire record to ensure that the Commissioner, through the ALJ, has both analyzed all of the evidence available and has sufficiently explained his/her reasoning and the weights given to the facts. See Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004). The ALJ, not the Court is ultimately responsible for weighing all of the evidence and coming to conclusion on any issues. ...


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