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Rashonda Charles v. Michael J. Astrue

April 11, 2012

RASHONDA CHARLES, 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

This case arises from a claim brought under the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006). Complaint ("Compl.") ¶ 3. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant's final administrative decision denying her Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments under the SSA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 301-1377mm (2006), for the period of her unemployment starting on March 25, 2008 and ending on June 5, 2009, Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of the Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 2, is not based on substantial evidence, Compl. ¶ 6. Two motions are now before the Court: the plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Pl.'s Mot."), and the defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance ("Def.'s Mot."). For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny the defendant's motion and deny in part and grant in part the plaintiff's motion, resulting in the case being remanded to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings in accordance with this Memorandum Opinion.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual and Procedural Background

The plaintiff, Rashonda Charles, was a thirty-six-year-old Washington, D.C. resident when this case was filed on November 29, 2010. She had earlier applied for benefits under Title II of the SSA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 (2006), and Title XVI of the SSA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f (2006), in 2008. Pl.'s Mem. at 1-2. Prior to applying for these benefits, the plaintiff had been employed as an instructor for mentally challenged individuals. Id. at 2-3. In her application for benefits, she represents that she was unable to work from March 25, 2008, to June 5, 2009, due to sarcidosis, asthma, and diabetes. Id. at 2. The plaintiff represents that these medical conditions caused her to suffer from shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. Id. The plaintiff had sought disability benefits for the period of time when she claims she was unable to work due to her illness in 2008 and 2009. Her claims have been denied by the Social Security Administration at every step of the review process, which consisted of the following hearings and decisions. Id. at 1-2.

The plaintiff's claims were initially denied by the Social Security Administration in a letter dated July 9, 2008. Pl.'s Mem. at 1; A.R. at 59-62. The Social Security Administration denied reconsideration of the denial in a letter dated January 28, 2009. A.R. at 55-58. After this denial, the plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Pl.'s Mem. at 1-2; A.R. at 48-51, and a hearing was scheduled for September 1, 2009. A.R. at 208. On the scheduled hearing date, the ALJ conducted a partial hearing after granting the plaintiff's request to postpone the hearing so that she could obtain counsel. Id. at 211. After the plaintiff left the hearing room, but before recessing the hearing, the ALJ questioned a vocational expert, Dr. James Ryan, on the record. A.R. at 213-19. The ALJ apparently took Dr. Ryan's testimony in spite of the postponement in an effort to "make maximum utilization of the government's resources." Id. at 213-14. The ALJ presented Dr. Ryan with five profiles of individuals with various physical limitations. Id. at 215-17. For each of the five profiles, the ALJ instructed the vocational expert to assume the individual had "the need to avoid excessive dust, fumes, chemicals, and poor ventilation, and excessive humidity or wetness." Id. at 216. Dr. Ryan provided testimony about the availability of jobs within the local economy for persons fitting each profile. Id. at 217-19.

The plaintiff's hearing was eventually resumed on November 16, 2009. Id. at 220. On that date, the plaintiff testified that she had engaged in unskilled work requiring medium-toheavy exertion as a job instructor for mentally challenged individuals. Id. at 226. She also stated that after a "severe asthma attack" in May 2008, she sought treatment at an emergency room, but was not hospitalized overnight. Id. at 231. The plaintiff further indicated that she was on several prescription drugs for both her breathing problems and her diabetes. Id. at 232-35. She testified that she had been a smoker, but quit after she "first became sick," id. at 235-36, and that her breathing problems were the primary cause of her disability. Id. at 236-37.

The plaintiff indicated that she lived with her eleven-year-old son and although she was unable to do "too much" cooking, she was able to make "light meals." Id. at 238-39. She stated that she had difficulty doing household cleaning, due to the task being "a full day job with the fumes, and the bleach and . . . trying to breathe and all that." Id. at 239-40. She indicated that she relied on her son to dust, vacuum, sweep, and mop. Id. at 239. The plaintiff said her ability to perform trash hauling, laundry washing, dish washing, grocery shopping, and driving was "limited." Id. at 240-41. She testified that she had been able to walk only about seven yards, lift ten pounds, and stand for five to ten minutes before becoming tired. Id. at 243-45. The plaintiff also said that she could not sit comfortably for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Id. at 245. She said she could push a ten or fifteen pound item for about five yards and carry a five pound item for about ten minutes. Id. at 246-47. The plaintiff indicated that after an "hour's worth of sleep," she would "wake up and jump up and gasp for air," and that as a result of her lack of sleep, she needed to take five to ten thirty or forty-five minute naps a day. Id. at 252-53.

According to the plaintiff, she was able to work after her period of disability for only about four months. Id. at 247. During that period, she was only able to work "about three days" a week, and while at work, she had to utilize a breathing machine every four to six hours. Id. at 249. The plaintiff said that her employment was terminated because her employer wanted someone with more "spunk." Id. at 250. When asked by the ALJ why she did not think she could do any job in the American economy, the plaintiff responded, "I [be]came accustomed to working with the mentally challenged, so it's just a field that I like." Id. at 251. She testified that she wanted to stay in that field. Id.

In evaluating the plaintiff's claim for benefits, the ALJ decided that the plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. Id. at 19. The ALJ determined that she had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "less light work with limitations" or "sedentary work."*fn2 Id. at 22. Among other limitations, he noted that the plaintiff would have to "avoid excessive dusts, fumes, chemicals, poor ventilation, humidity, or wetness." Id. To the extent that her testimony conflicted with this RFC, the ALJ found the plaintiff's statements about the "intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of [her] symptoms" was not credible. Id. at 23. The ALJ observed that "the [plaintiff] appeared alert and energetic at the hearing, despite alleging severe breathing difficulties and fatigue. Furthermore, when asked why she could not perform work of a less exertional nature during the closed period, the claimant candidly stated that she enjoyed working with mentally challenged people and wanted to stay within her career field." Id. at 25.

The ALJ also found that the medical evidence in the record was inconsistent with the plaintiff's allegation of total disability. Id. at 24. He afforded significant weight to an opinion by Dr. Esther Pinder, M.D., a medical consultant who assessed the plaintiff in 2008. Id. Dr. Pinder's report indicated her belief that the plaintiff could frequently lift ten pounds and occasionally lift twenty pounds, sit for a total of six hours during an eight-hour work day, and "[s]tand and/or walk (with normal breaks)" for a total of about six hours of an eight-hour work day. Id. at 180. Dr. Pinder did opine that, in her opinion, the plaintiff should "avoid even moderate exposure to extreme heat, wetness, and humidity" and "avoid all exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, [and] poor ventilation." Id. at 183. Nonetheless, Dr. Pinder concluded that she believed the plaintiff could perform "light work." Id. 184. This assessment was affirmed by two other "state agency medical consultants," one of whom is a medical doctor. Id. at 25, 200-01.

The ALJ also afforded great significance to an examination performed by Dr. Steven Lerner, M.D. Id. at 24. Dr. Lerner concluded that the plaintiff "appeared to be able to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, handle objects, hear, speak or travel without difficulty." Id. at 171. Dr. Lerner further explained that he did not believe the impairments he observed explained the severe exercise intolerance expressed by the plaintiff. Id. at 171-72.

The ALJ concluded that the record supported the conclusion that the plaintiff "retained the ability to perform light and sedentary unskilled work," id. at 25, "was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy," id. at 27, and was therefore "not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 25, 2008 through June 4, 2009. . . ." Id.

The ALJ therefore denied the plaintiff's claims in a written decision on November 24, 2009. Pl.'s Mem. at 2; A.R. at 16-27. The plaintiff then requested that the Social Security Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. Pl.'s Mem. at 2. The Appeals Council did so and affirmed the ALJ's decision on September 24, 2010. Id. The plaintiff has therefore exhausted all of her ...


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