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Hamilton v. Astrue

March 26, 2009

JESSICA M. HAMILTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR B. Kenton United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

(Social Security Case)

This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the Magistrate Judge. The action arises under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), which authorizes the Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the record before the Commissioner. The parties have filed the Joint Stipulation ("JS"), and the Commissioner has filed the certified Administrative Record ("AR").

Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly considered the medical evidence, including treating physician opinions; and

2. Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and properly assessed her credibility.

This Memorandum Opinion will constitute the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.

PROCEDURAL CHRONOLOGY

On February 17, 2004, Plaintiff filed applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), alleging an onset date of November 10, 2002. (AR 81-83, 391-394.) After receiving administrative denials, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which occurred on December 15, 2004. (AR 459-473.) This resulted in an unfavorable decision issued on February 8, 2005. (AR 45-56.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light, simple work in her past occupation as an office helper. (AR 56.)

Plaintiff was successful before the Appeals Council, which issued a remand order on November 29, 2005. (AR 77-79.) In that order, the ALJ was ordered, among other things, to obtain all available updated medical records from treating sources; provide a supplemental hearing; and give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum RFC, including possible non-exertional limitations. The ALJ was ordered to evaluate the medical opinions of her treating, examining, and reviewing physicians, and state the weight to be accorded each of those opinions. (AR 78.)

Pursuant to the remand order, a hearing took place before the ALJ on July 18, 2006. (AR 474-498.) A second decision, again unfavorable, was issued on July 23, 2006. (AR 19-34.) In this decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's RFC would allow her to perform work at all exertional levels, but only in low-stress jobs, which would constitute simple work requiring average pace and production, no work with the general public, limited co-worker contact and no responsibility for the safety of others. (AR 24.) The ALJ adopted various occupations identified at the hearing by the vocational expert ("VE") as being within Plaintiff's RFC. (AR 33.)

Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council (AR 16) was accompanied by the submission of additional evidence (AR 8, 12, 396-458), but it was denied (AR 9-13), thus rendering the ALJ's July 23, 2006 decision the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in this action.

I. THE ALJ PROPERLY CONSIDERED THE RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE OF RECORD

In her first issue, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to properly consider the relevant medical evidence of record, including the opinions of treating physicians. Although acknowledging that the ALJ reviewed the opinions of these physicians, Plaintiff's Complaint appears to be that the ALJ failed to provide "a detailed explanation as to what weight is given to each of the treating physician opinions ..." (JS at 4.)

In his decision, the ALJ incorporated by reference his prior decision of February 8, 2005. (AR 26, referencing AR 48-56.) Consequently, it is important to lend perspective to the extent of the remand order of the Appeals Council. (AR 78-79.) The Appeals Council noted that in the request for review, Plaintiff's representative submitted evidence indicating that she has been HIV positive for several years. Therefore, it was found that further evaluation is needed "with respect to this impairment." (AR 78.) The ALJ was thus ordered to provide a new hearing, give further consideration to her maximum RFC, including non-exertional limitations, and evaluate the medical opinions of the treating, examining and reviewing physicians, stating what weight is given to such opinions.*fn1 (Id.)

A. Physical Health Issues

Plaintiff devotes substantial attention to the opinions of Dr. Ahmed, an orthopedist. She noted that on February 26, 2004, Dr. Ahmed found swelling on Plaintiff's left knee as well as muscle spasms in the lumbar spine, and recommended that Plaintiff utilize an assistive device for ambulation. Dr. Ahmed limited Plaintiff to walking only 10 to 15 minutes without an assistive device. (AR 174.)*fn2 Dr. Ahmed also limited Plaintiff to standing and walking less than two hours out of an eight-hour day and restricted her to lifting less than ten pounds.

On October 28, 2004, Dr. Ahmed noted that Plaintiff is under his care for right wrist CTS, right lateral epicondylitis, lumbar herniated disc, and left knee internal derangement. (AR 234.)

On December 9, 2004, Dr. Ahmed noted that Plaintiff is still under his care and is unable to do any heavy lifting due to her low back pain. She has been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, which makes gripping, grasping and carrying objects for long periods of time difficult. Dr. Ahmed noted that a left knee MRI was still pending, but he suspected possible internal derangement. He ...


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