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Blackmon v. Astrue

June 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge


Plaintiff Anthony Blackmon brings this action seeking review of the final administrative decision by Defendant Michael J. Astrue, in his official capacity as Commissioner of Social Security,*fn1 denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSIB") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. After reviewing the parties' briefs, the administrative record, and the relevant case law, the Court shall DENY Plaintiff's [8] Motion for Judgment of Reversal and GRANT Defendant's [11] Motion for Judgment of Affirmance, for the reasons that follow.


A. Legal Framework and Procedural History

Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSIB pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act") on May 1, 2001. See Pl. Mot. for J. of Reversal ("Pl.'s Mot."), at 1-2. To qualify for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income ("SSI"), a claimant must demonstrate a disability, which is defined by the Act as an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." See 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1); id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). In addition, a claimant seeking disability or SSI benefits must have a severe impairment that makes him unable to perform past relevant work or any other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. See id. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Substantial gainful work activity is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities and is the kind of work that is usually done for pay or profit. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1472.

In making a disability determination, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is required to use a five-step sequential analysis examining (1) the claimant's recent work activity, (2) the severity and duration of the claimant's impairments, (3) whether the claimant's impairments are medically equivalent to those contained in the Listing of Impairments promulgated by the Social Security Administration ("SSA" or the "Administration"), (4) the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and ability to perform past work, and (5) the claimant's ability to perform jobs reasonably available in the national economy. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see also Brown v. Barnhart, 408 F. Supp. 2d 28, 32 (D.D.C. 2006). At the first step in the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is working and whether the work is substantial gainful activity; if so, the claim must be denied. See Brown, 408 F. Supp. 2d at 32. At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairments are severe; if they are not, the claim must be denied. Id. In step three, the ALJ compares the impairments to a listing of impairments that automatically qualify as a disability under the regulations. If the claimant's impairments match those listed, disability is conclusively presumed. Id. If there is no match, the ALJ proceeds to step four and determines whether the claimant has any residual functional capacity to perform his old job. If so, the claim will be denied. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step five and determines whether there is any other gainful work in the national economy that the claimant could perform notwithstanding his disability. Although the claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to the first four steps of the analysis, at step five the burden shifts to the Administration to demonstrate that the claimant is able to perform "other work" based on his residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience. Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004). If so, the claim must be denied.

Plaintiff is a 48 year-old male resident of Washington, D.C. See Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 510. He has a high school education in addition to one and a half years of college.

Id. at 64, 518. His past relevant work includes work as a data entry clerk, accounts payable clerk, and deputy court clerk. Id. at 511. In June of 2002, he returned to work on a part-time basis as a patient escort. Id. at 14, 59, 512. In his application for DIB and SSIB, Plaintiff alleged that he was disabled as of April 27, 2001,*fn2 on the basis of, inter alia, human immunodeficiency virus ("HIV"), neuropathy, depression, and fatigue. See Pl. Mot. 1-2; A.R. at 13, 52, 482.

Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. A.R. at 13. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ. Id. at 37-38. That hearing was held on January 23, 2003. Id. at 13. Plaintiff was represented at the hearing by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified at the ALJ's request. See id. at 13. In a decision dated May 1, 2003, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and denied the requested benefits. See generally id. at 13-23.

At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Id. at 15, 21. At step two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence indicated that Plaintiff was HIV positive and that the impairment was "severe." Id. at 15, 21. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's HIV infection did not "meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed" in Appendix 1, Subpart P, No. 4 (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d)) and that "no treating or examining physician [had] offered an opinion or reported findings of a listing level severity, none is medically documented and none is supported." Id. at 15, 21. The ALJ therefore proceeded to step four, at which point he assessed the Plaintiff's RFC and determined that Plaintiff had the ability to return to his past relevant work as a data entry clerk. Id. at 18. The ALJ nonetheless proceeded to step five and determined in the alternative that Plaintiff was capable of performing one of several "light/sedentary" jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy, including cashier, office helper, sales, administrative support person (such as an addresser), order clerk, and charge account clerk. Id. at 20. The ALJ therefore determined that Plaintiff "is not disabled... and is not entitled to receive Disability Insurance Benefits and is likewise ineligible for Supplemental Security Income payments." Id.

Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council. See id. at 4-7. On May 19, 2004, the Appeals Council upheld the decision of the ALJ, finding no basis for granting the request for review. Id. at 4. Having fully exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed suit in this Court.

B. Evidence Contained in the Administrative Record

The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's condition based on evidence including various medical records (both physical and mental health records) and the testimony of the Plaintiff and the VE during the administrative hearing in this case. The Court recounts below the most relevant portions of the administrative record.

1. Physical Health Records

Plaintiff was a patient at the Whitman Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., between August 22, 2000, and February 25, 2002. A.R. at 104. The Clinic's medical records show that Plaintiff was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Id. at 105. In addition, the records indicate that Plaintiff has a history of AIDS, peripheral neuropathy, substance abuse, and depression. Id. at 105. He was noted to have a baseline weight of 137-145 pounds. Id. With respect to the peripheral neuropathy, the Clinic noted that Plaintiff complained of tingling and numbness in his feet and stiffness in his right knee, and that this limited his activity and daily living. Id. at 106. Plaintiff was on medication for both his HIV and peripheral neuropathy, id., and the Clinic records indicate that Plaintiff would need to take life long anti-retroviral therapy, id. at 156. Plaintiff's HIV was noted to be stable and the records indicate that he had an excellent response to medications. Id. at 108, 110, 111, 124, 131.

On July 30, 2001, a Disability Determination Services physician completed a residual functional capacity assessment (physical) for Plaintiff. Id. at 194-201. The records show that Plaintiff was HIV positive and suffering from depression. Id. at 194. With regards to specific external limitations, it was determined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift or carry 50 pounds, frequently lift or carry 25 pounds, stand and/or walk for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, sit for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and engage in an unlimited amount of pushing and pulling. Id. at 195. The examining physician also found no established postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. Id. at 196-98. It was noted that Plaintiff continued to take his HIV medication, id. at 195, but had reported HIV wasting, id. at 196. At the time of the assessment, Plaintiff was 5'11" and weighed between 140 to 141 1/2 pounds. Id. He reported being able to perform activities of daily living independently, such as dusting, laundry, food shopping, and attending church. Id. at 199.

Dr. Chitra R. Chari, a neurologist, examined Plaintiff on April 2, 2002. Id. at 220-22.

Dr. Chari noted that Plaintiff had "weakness in his left arm" and could not "hold heavy objects... more than 10 lbs too long." Id. at 220. In addition, he complained of previously having had pain in his knees and a numbness in his feet to knees, but indicated that he felt better since he had begun medication. Id. Dr. Chari further noted that Plaintiff's "[m]uscle strength was 5/5 in all four limbs," although he had a "decrease in touch and pin sensation from the feet to about two-thirds into the legs and from hands to about one-third into the forearm." Id. at 222. Dr. Chari concluded that Plaintiff had "signs and symptoms consistent with peripheral neuropathy." Id. In addition, the records indicate that Plaintiff reported a history of depression, but stated that he had no recent problems with depression and was not on medication for his depression at that time.

Id. at 221.

Plaintiff underwent a second physical residual functional capacity assessment on April 18, 2002, performed by Dr. Isabelle Pico. Id. at 223-30. The records again show that Plaintiff was HIV positive and was suffering from depression. Id. at 222. Dr. Pico found that Plaintiff was able to lift 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently and could stand, walk, and sit for about 6 hours in a normal workday. Id. at 224. Dr. Pico further determined that Plaintiff had unlimited ability to push and pull, and that he exhibited muscle strength of 5/5 in all extremities. Id. at 224. Plaintiff was again found to have a decrease in touch and pin sensation from the feet to two-thirds of the way up the leg, and from the hands to one-third of the forearm, but nonetheless was found to have no postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. Id. at 224-27.

2. Mental Health Records

Plaintiff's medical records indicate that on June 26, 2001, he was brought to the emergency room for a prescription medication overdose. Id. at 159. He was subsequently admitted to Prince George's Hospital Center, which records show a principal diagnosis of "major depressive disorder, single episode, severe, with psychotic features, with suicide attempt." Id. at 168. Plaintiff was started on medication to treat his depression and his HIV. Id. at 175.

On February 25, 2002, Dr. Neil Schiff performed a general psychological evaluation of Plaintiff. Id. at 217-19. Dr. Schiff determined that Plaintiff had a Verbal IQ of 77, a Performance IQ of 79, and a Full Scale IQ of 76. Id. at 217. Based upon administration of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III, Dr. Schiff concluded that Plaintiff "is currently functioning in the borderline range of intelligence." Id. at 218. Dr. Schiff further observed, however, that Plaintiff "was alert and oriented to person, place, and time" and that "[h]is speech was coherent and relevant, and no gross memory deficit was apparent during the interview." Id. at 218. In addition, the evaluation indicates that Plaintiff "showed no signs of psychotic symptoms or thought disorder," and, while "[h]is mood appeared mildly depressed, [] he was generally pleasant and cooperative." Id. Plaintiff was also noted to have had "no difficulty understanding and following simple instructions," and had "moderately good, if somewhat erratic, success with more complex or detailed tasks and instructions." Id. Dr. Schiff further determined that Plaintiff's "vocabulary, his abstract conceptualization, his common-sense reasoning and judgment, his discrimination of relevant visual detail, and his nonverbal, logical reasoning were in the mildly deficient range for his age, and his mental manipulation of numbers was moderately deficient." Id. at 219. The evaluation concluded that, at present, Plaintiff was "capable of learning and performing relatively simple routines, although his capacities for concentration are limited." Id. Dr. Schiff diagnosed Plaintiff with depressive disorder and borderline intellectual functioning. Id.

On April 18, 2002, Plaintiff underwent a mental residual functional capacity assessment performed by Dr. Patricia Cott, a Disability Determination Service physician. Id. at 232-35. Dr. Cott also completed a psychiatric review technique. Id. at 236-49. Plaintiff was reported to have only moderate to no significant limitations in his mental RFC. Id. at 232-33. Specifically, Plaintiff was noted to have moderate limitations in his ability to understand, remember, and carry-out detailed instructions; maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism; complete a normal workday and workweek without interruption; interact appropriately with the general public; and set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. Id. at 232-33. Plaintiff otherwise was found to have no significant limitations in his mental RFC. Id. Dr. Cott concluded that Plaintiff was capable of learning and performing simple tasks and routine work. Id. at 234.

With respect to the psychiatric review technique, Dr. Cott indicated that she had based her determinations on further RFC assessment. Id. at 236. The records show that Dr. Cott found the presence of a psychological or behavioral abnormality associated with a dysfunction of the brain, but noted that the impairment did not precisely satisfy any of the listed diagnostic criteria; she did, however, rule out neurological cognitive impairment related to HIV. Id. at 237. Similarly, Dr. Cott concluded that Plaintiff had evidence of a mood disturbance, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome, but again noted that the impairment did not precisely satisfy any of the listed diagnostic criteria. Id. at 239. Dr. Cott concluded that Plaintiff's behavioral and physical changes were associated with his past history of substance abuse. Id. at 244. The records also show that Plaintiff had moderate difficulty with the activities of daily living, social functioning, and maintaining concentration, ...

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