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Lewis v. Astrue

February 19, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Suzanne H. Segal United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff Craig S. Lewis ("Plaintiff") brings this action seeking an order to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner" or the "Agency") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits and to award benefits. In the alternative, Plaintiff seeks remand for further proceedings. The parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation ("Jt. Stip."), filed on November 16, 2009. The Court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c). For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.


On March 20, 2006, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 1999. (AR 51-54). The claim was initially denied on July 25, 2006. (AR 24). On January 22, 2007, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Id.). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the February 19, 2008 hearing. (AR 144). On March 4, 2008, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff was not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (AR 21,31). On March 24, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing. (AR 14). On January 23, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review. (AR 8-10). Plaintiff then commenced this civil action, filing a complaint for review of the ALJ's decision on March 25, 2009.


A. Background Information

Plaintiff was born August 26, 1963. (AR 51). He is a United States citizen, completed school through eleventh grade, and now lives with his mother. (AR 51, 105). Plaintiff claims that he is unable to work due to a childhood injury that necessitated inserting metal plates in his side and his head. (AR 75, 149-52). He contends that the metal plates cause seizures, which make it difficult for him to remember fully, to concentrate, and to follow directions. (AR 75, 118, 148-52). The first seizure, and alleged onset of Plaintiff's disability, occurred on March 1, 1999. (AR 147).

Plaintiff testified that he enjoys watching television and doing puzzles from a puzzle book on a daily basis. (AR 94). At some point, he spent five months shoveling sand over oil spills. (AR 148). He claims that he was fired from that job after suffering a seizure. (Id.). Subsequent to his onset date of March 1, 1999, Plaintiff has worked for his mother, providing in-home care. (AR 28-29, 75). However, Plaintiff stated that he does not work for more than an hour a day.*fn1 (AR 147). Plaintiff's earnings record shows that he earned $9463 in 2004, $8102 in 2005, and $6616 in 2006. (AR 59, 147). The State presumably pays these wages to Plaintiff for being his mother's caretaker. (AR 147).

B. Relevant Medical History

1. Consultative Physicians

At the request of the Department of Social Services, three doctors examined Plaintiff. Neurologist Sarah L. Maze, M.D., performed a neurological assessment and submitted her report on July 5, 2006.*fn2 (See AR 118). She reported that Plaintiff has not had any recent trauma, but was in a car accident when he was seven. He experienced significant head trauma in that accident. (Id.). Plaintiff remained unconscious for two weeks and received a plate in his head and side. (AR 118, 129). Plaintiff's first seizure was in 1999. (AR 118). However, he does not take any seizure medications. (Id.). Plaintiff's mother told Dr. Maze that Plaintiff sometimes stares without response for up to twenty seconds. (Id.). Dr. Maze concluded, "Mr. Lewis is having lapses in alertness and this probably represents complex partial seizures. He is precluded from working at heights, around dangerous machinery, around unprotected water, or operating a motor vehicle." (AR 121).

Dr. M.E. Bayar completed a Physical RFC Assessment of Plaintiff, submitted on July 21, 2006. (AR 123-28). In this assessment, Dr. Bayar relied on her own observations as well as Dr. Maze's neurological report. (See AR 128). Dr. Bayar noted that Plaintiff's "allegations and contentions regarding the nature and severity of the impairment-related symptoms and functional limitations are found to be partially credible," and that "[t]he findings specified within this RFC assessment are more consistent with the appropriate medical findings and the overall evidence in the file than the allegations made by [Plaintiff]." (Id.).

Psychologist Jeanette K. Townsend, Ph.D., examined Plaintiff on July 17, 2007. (AR 133-143). Dr. Townsend evaluated different categories of Plaintiff's mental limitations using a scale of "none," "slightly limited," "moderately limited," and "markedly limited." Only "markedly limited" is defined as seriously affecting one's ability to function in the work environment. (AR 133).

Dr. Townsend's preliminary report contained the following relevant observations. Plaintiff is "moderately limited" in his ability to understand and remember detailed instructions. (AR 134). Plaintiff is "moderately limited" in his ability to work with sustained concentration for extended periods of time and complete a normal work-day and work-week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. He may also require an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. (AR 135). Plaintiff's ability to interact socially is "slightly limited" with respect to the general public only. (Id.). Otherwise, he is capable of asking questions, accepting instructions, maintaining socially acceptable behavior and cleanliness, and interacting with coworkers. (AR 135-36). Plaintiff is "moderately limited" in his ability to travel to unfamiliar places or to use public transportation, and in his ability to set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. (AR 137).

Dr. Townsend's narrative Summary Report, submitted on August 29, 2007, concluded: "From the cognitive and psychiatric point of view, [Plaintiff] would be able to do a simple repetitive tasks and complete a full day's work in a job which does not involve time pressure where speed is not required." (AR 143). Dr. Townsend also determined that Plaintiff has a depressive disorder and borderline intellectual functioning. (AR 142-43).

2. Plaintiff's Testimony Regarding His Medical History

Plaintiff complains of occasional seizures since 1999. (AR 87). The last seizure Plaintiff remembers experiencing was in 2000. (Id.). Without taking any medication to prevent seizures, Plaintiff has nevertheless been seizure-free since 2000. (AR 150). Plaintiff describes the pre-2000 seizures as having caused him to lose consciousness, have convulsions, bite his tongue, and lose bladder control. (Id.). There are no medical records pertaining to Plaintiff's seizures and he is not taking any prescribed seizure medication.*fn3 (AR 88). Plaintiff did not produce any witnesses to his past seizures, but his mother did tell Dr. Maze that Plaintiff sometimes "just stares off" for about twenty seconds. (AR 89).

The plates in the right side of Plaintiff's head and body cause him pain. (AR 115). Plaintiff occasionally has trouble sleeping due to pain in his side. (AR 91). When this happens, he testified that he takes his mother's sleeping pills. (AR 99). Plaintiff also complains of headaches. (AR 107). He takes Tylenol III (Codeine), Advil, or Motrin for the headaches. (AR 115, 153). Plaintiff obtains the Codeine from either his mother or brother, both of whom have prescriptions. (AR 153).

At the hearing, Plaintiff did not testify that he is depressed or has psychological problems that prevent him from working. (See AR 146-161). He did mention to Dr. Townsend that he sometimes feels unhappy and that "a lot of people be stressing me that's why I stay to myself." (AR 139). However, Plaintiff's reports and testimony were chiefly about how seizures, headaches, and pain impacted his ability to work. (See supra 3 and accompanying text). Indeed, where Plaintiff was asked "[W]hat's your biggest problem now do you think that's keeping ...

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