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CHU v. BARNHART

May 28, 2004.

JOHN C CHU, Plaintiff
v.
JOANNE B BARNHART, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VAUGHN WALKER, District Judge

ORDER

Plaintiff appeals from the decision of the administrative law judge ("ALJ") denying plaintiff social security disability benefits. The court now considers cross motions for summary judgment. Pl Mot (Doc # 12); Def Mot (Doc # 16). Based upon review of the administrative record, the court DENIES plaintiff's motion and GRANTS defendant's motion. I

A

  Plaintiff was fifty-eight years old on October 1, 1997, the date of the disability onset he alleges. Administrative Record ("AR") (Doc #10) at 19. Plaintiff has a master of arts degree in physics and past relevant work experience as a computer technician. AR at 20-21, 69. Plaintiff reported that he frequently lifted twenty-five pounds in his past work. AR at 69. Plaintiff stopped working on October 1, 1997. AR at 68.

  According to plaintiff, he has arthritis in his back and knees, a surgically-removed fingernail, wrist injuries, an inability to move his right shoulder and a heart problem. AR at 27-28, 30. Plaintiff also states that he had trouble climbing stairs and moving his shoulder. AR at 27.

  In connection with the health problems plaintiff describes, he was examined by two medical experts. First, plaintiff was examined by Dr Suzanne Stone for an internal medicine consultation on December 30, 1999. AR at 157-163. Dr Stone diagnosed plaintiff with chronic lumbar strain, adequately controlled hypertension, history of pulmonary tuberculosis without known recurrence, exogenous obesity, surgically-removed left fourth fingernail and moderate chronic depression. AR at 159. Dr Stone concluded that plaintiff was restricted to lifting or carrying ten pounds frequently, lifting or carrying twenty pounds occasionally, standing or walking two to four hours and sitting six hours continuously with adequate breaks. AR at 159-60. Dr Stone further concluded that plaintiff had moderate exertional limitations on climbing, stooping, kneeling, pushing, balancing, crouching, crawling and pulling. AR. Dr Stone based her opinions on a physical examination of plaintiff and review of plaintiff's pain questionnaire. AR at 157-160.

  Plaintiff subsequently was evaluated by Dr Jonathan Howard, a licensed psychologist, on February 11, 2000. AR at 185-188. Dr Howard noted his diagnostic impressions of plaintiff, including, "[d]epressive and anxious features * * *; [c]onsider [a]djustment [d]isorder; [c]onsider [p]hase of [l]ife [p]roblems." AR at 187. Dr Howard concluded that plaintiff may have difficulty dealing with normal stresses of work and interacting with coworkers and the public. AR at 187-188. Dr Howard also concluded that plaintiff would not have difficulty performing simple repetitive activities, accepting instructions from supervisors or maintaining work attendance. AR at 188. Dr Howard based his opinions on plaintiff's self-reported information, intelligence test performance, clinical examination and review of medical records. AR at 187.

  The reports of Dr Stone and Dr Howard were reviewed by state agency physicians and psychiatrists. AR at 164-171, 189-206. These doctors did not examine plaintiff. The non-examining psychiatrists separately opined that although plaintiff had affective and anxiety-related disorders, the impairments were not severe. AR at 189, 198. The non-examining physicians concluded that plaintiff had only some exertional limitations. AR at 165.

  B

  Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") on October 14, 1999, and an application for social security disability benefits under Title XVI of the Act on October 18, 1999. AR (Doc # 10) at 46-48, 217-219. Plaintiff was denied benefits on March 8, 2000, and filed a request for reconsideration on April 5, 2000. AR at 34-39. The request was granted, but plaintiff again was denied benefits on June 1, 2000. AR at 40-43. Plaintiff requested a hearing to review the decision denying him benefits on June 7, 2000. AR at 44-45.

  The ALJ held a hearing on January 4, 2001, in which plaintiff testified that he was disabled due to shoulder, back and knee pain. AR at 17. On January 23, 2001, the ALJ denied benefits to plaintiff based on the evidence presented at the hearing, including the reports from Dr Stone, Dr Howard, the non-examining medical experts, plaintiff's testimony and other medical records. AR at 11-16.

  To determine whether plaintiff was entitled to benefits, the ALJ conducted a five-step sequential evaluation of plaintiff's disability, which considered the following questions: (1) was plaintiff currently engaged in substantial activity; (2) did plaintiff have a severe impairment or a combination of impairments; (3) if plaintiff had a severe impairment, did plaintiff have a condition which meets or equals the conditions outlined in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. § 404, Pt 404, Subpt P, App. 1; (4) if plaintiff did not have such a condition, was plaintiff capable of performing his past work; and (5) did plaintiff have the residual functioning capacity to perform any other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

  Applying the five-step sequential evaluation to plaintiff, the ALJ specifically found that: (1) plaintiff met the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 1997; (2) plaintiff had impairments or combination of impairments considered severe; (3) the impairments did not meet one of the impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) plaintiff's allegations regarding his limitations were not totally credible; (5) careful consideration was given to the medical opinions regarding the severity of plaintiff's impairments; (6) plaintiff had the residual functional capacity for medium work activity with lifting and/or carrying limited to fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; (7) based on plaintiff's residual functional capacity, plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a computer technician; and (8) plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act at any time through the date of the decision. AR at 15. Ultimately, the ALJ determined that, while plaintiff had the severe impairments of chronic lumbar strain and Bowen's disease of the left fourth finger, plaintiff was able to perform his past relevant work as a computer technician based on his residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. AR at 15.

  Plaintiff appealed to the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") appeals council on March 12, 2001. AR at 6-16. On May 7, 2001, the appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became final. AR at 4-5. On June 29, 2001, plaintiff commenced the ...


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