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Thomas v. Astrue

January 7, 2010

LAWRENCE THOMAS 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 [6] for judgment of reversal, the defendant's motion [8] for judgment of affirmance, plaintiff's opposition [11] to defendant's motion 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, Lawrence Thomas filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on Mach 12, 2002. (Tr. 15.) Plaintiff alleged a disability onset of June 13, 2001. (Id. 48-50.) He alleged disability on the basis of sciatica and spinal stenosis caused by arthritis. (Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal at 1.) Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 33-37, 38, 39-42.) On June 22, 2005, at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), plaintiff was again denied benefits. (Id. 1-2.) Leonard Perlman, a vocational expert ("VE") was also present at this hearing. (Id. 15.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff could engage in work identified by the VE even though he had severe spinal stenosis and arthritis. (Id. 15-21.) The Appeals council determined there was no basis for a review of the ALJ. (Id. 5-7.) Plaintiff then appealed to this Court and in an order dated August 28, 2006 the Court granted the Commissioner's voluntary motion to remand, reversed the final administrative decision of the Commissioner, and remanded the case for further proceedings." (Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal at 2.) On March 13, 2007, the Appeals Council issued its remand order requiring a better articulation of the medical records. (Tr. 262-266.) A supplemental hearing was held on July 17, 2007 and on October 2, 2007 the ALJ issued a decision again denying the plaintiff's claims. (Id. 256, 271-289, 242-255.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to do "unskilled light work with a sit/stand option and limited dominant hand use." (Id. 249.) The plaintiff again brought suit in this Court challenging the final administrative decision of the Commissioner.

II. Factual Background

Plaintiff is a 38 year old man and was 30 years old at the alleged onset of his disability. (Def.'s Mot for J. of Affirmance at 4.) He has a high school education and in the past plaintiff has worked as a truck driver. (Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal at 2.) His past jobs have involved heavy lifting. (Def.'s Mot. for J. of Affirmance at 4.) From June 13, 2001 through December 1, 2005 plaintiff claims he did not work because of his back injury. (Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal at 2.) In June, 2001 plaintiff was diagnosed with recurrent disc herniation, with epidural fibrosis and moderate to marked spinal stenosis at L4-5 as well as having a disc protrusion at L3-4 with impingement upon the L4 nerve root and arthritis. (Id. at 2-3.) Plaintiff claims that he had back problems starting in 1998 and that the problem recurred in 2001. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff testified that since the onset of his disability he has worked modeling men's clothing and selling men's clothing for 9 months. (Tr. 231, 275, 278.) Plaintiff also claims that he could not work due to pain. (Def.'s Mot. for J. of Affirmance at 5.) Records from the D.C. Chartered Family Health Center dated September 30, 2003 state that plaintiff was seen for a right hand second digit injury "poss. sport related." (Tr. 201, 203.) Further, records from the same center dated July 7, 2004, stated that plaintiff was seen by orthopedics for foot and knee pain that began after plaintiff "fell while playing basketball 1 1/2 weeks ago." (Id. 176.) Plaintiff testified that he takes his daughter to work and sometimes will attend to "business" until he picks her up in the afternoon. (Id. 77.) Based on all the information, the ALJ ultimately found that plaintiff suffered from a severe back disorder and arthritis but determined that plaintiff was not credible as to the amount of pain he felt. (Id. 243, 251.)

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. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 145 (4th Cir. 1990). The Court will not disturb the Commissioner's final decision if it is based on substantial evidence in the record and correctly applies legal standards.

II. The Judgment of the Administrative Law Judge is Supported by Substantial Evidence

The plaintiff argues that the ALJ's "decision fails to be supported by substantial evidence, and is erroneous as a matter of law" because: (1) the ALJ "erroneously assessed the plaintiff's residual functional capacity," and (2) the ALJ "failed to properly assess the opinion of the ...


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