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Juan Garcia v. Michael J. Astrue

March 18, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sheila K. Oberto United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Sheila K. Oberto, United States Magistrate Judge.*fn1


Plaintiff was born in 1961, completed the twelfth grade, and previously worked as a machine operator and welder. (Administrative Record ("AR") 42, 165-67.) On August 3, 2006, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on January 19, 2006, due to carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, gout in both knees and ankles, heart problems, diabetes, and hypertension. (AR 16, 133-44, 153.)

A. Medical Evidence

1. Robert K. Buckenberger, D.P.M.

Treatment records of Dr. Buckenberger, Plaintiff's treating podiatrist, reveal that on March 29, 2006, Plaintiff complained of pain in his left ankle and foot since tripping over an extension cord and spraining his left ankle in November 2005. (AR 231, 233.)

On April 28, 2006, Plaintiff underwent left ankle surgery. (AR 283.) On June 22, 2006, Plaintiff was "still having a burning pain in the forefoot and pain at the ankle with weight bearing. . . . He is unable to work." (AR 283.) Dr. Buckenberger also "filled out disability paperwork extending off work [sic] through July 28, that will be three months from the time of surgery." (AR 283.)

On August 16, 2006, Dr. Buckenberger completed a disability form in which he opined that, because of Plaintiff's ankle arthritis, it was painful for him to walk, and he would be unable to perform his regular or customary work for twelve months. (AR 253.)

On August 22, 2006, Dr. Buckenberger opined that Plaintiff "cannot work full time." (AR 283.) The doctor "filled out disability papers" and opined that Plaintiff's "[p]robable return to work [would be] in twelve months, if at all." (AR 283.) Dr. Buckenberger recommended that Plaintiff use an ankle brace. (AR 283.)

In July 2007, Dr. Buckenberger reported that Plaintiff was "having pain in the right ankle for the past year. He had left ankle surgery in April [2006] and has developed similar problems on this side." (AR 261.) Because other treatment such as injections and anti-inflammatory medication provided little relief, Plaintiff requested surgical correction. (AR 261.) Plaintiff, therefore, underwent surgery on his right ankle and foot on July 11, 2007. (AR 258-60.)

2. Rustom Damania, M.D.

On October 14, 2006, Dr. Damania, an internist, performed a consultative examination of Plaintiff. (AR 235-38.) Dr. Damania's diagnoses included (1) obesity, (2) hypertension, (3) diabetes mellitus type two, (4) gout, (5) status post carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, (6) ganglion cyst in the right wrist, and (7) bursitis of the right shoulder. (AR 238.)

Dr. Damania's functional assessment of Plaintiff was as follows: [Plaintiff] should be able to stand and walk for six hours, sit for six hours.

No assistive device is necessary. [Plaintiff] should be able to lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. No postural limitations.

No manipulative limitations.

No definite relevant visual impairment though [he] requires an examination and appropriate eyeglasses.

No communicative impairments. No workplace environmental limitations. (AR 238.)

3. L.V. Bobba, M.D.

On November 2, 2006, Dr. Bobba, a state agency physician, assessed Plaintiff's physical residual functional capacity ("RFC").*fn2 (AR 239-43.) Dr. Bobba opined that Plaintiff could (1) occasionally lift and/or carry 50 pounds and frequently 25 pounds; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling with the upper extremities. (AR 240.) Plaintiff could (1) frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; and (2) occasionally crawl and climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. (AR 241.) Plaintiff was limited to occasional reaching at or above the right shoulder level. (AR 241.) Finally, Plaintiff had no visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. (AR 241-42.)

4. Don E. Helland, M.D.

On January 16, 2008, Dr. Helland, a radiologist, completed a questionnaire in which he opined that the combination of Plaintiff's impairments restricted him to doing no more than sedentary work because of chronic low back pain and bilateral elbow/arm pain. (AR 339.) Plaintiff was able to sit only one hour at a time and a total of three to four hours in an eight-hour day, and stand and/or walk five to ten minutes at a time and every hour. (AR 339.) Further, Plaintiff was required to lie down or elevate his legs for ten minutes every hour. (AR 339.) Dr. Helland based his opinion on objective findings of "limited [range of motion] on [Plaintiff's] lumbar spine." (AR 339.) Finally, Dr. Helland opined that Plaintiff had been limited to this degree since July 2007. (AR 339.)

On January 24, 2008, Dr. Helland reviewed an MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine, which revealed, among other things, "rather severe degenerative disk disease at the L4-5 level," with "moderate posterior and posterolateral disk bulging" and "moderately severe central spinal stenosis and significant narrowing of the neural foramina at this level." (AR 341.) Dr. Helland further noted that "[a]t the L3-4 level there is mild to moderate posterior and posterolateral disk bulging." (AR 341.)

On February 19, 2008, another MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed severe degenerative disc disease at the L4-5 level, with "extensive reactive changes within the vertebral body endplates and the adjacent marrow at the L4-5 level." (AR 340.)

B. Administrative Hearing

The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and again on reconsideration; consequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 84-109.) On January 8, 2008, ALJ Michael J. Haubner held a hearing in which Plaintiff, Plaintiff's wife, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (AR 35-83.)

1. Plaintiff's Testimony

Plaintiff stated on a work history report as part of his applications for DIB and SSI that his past jobs as a welder and machine operator required him to stand and walk for a total of seven hours in a day. (AR 165-66.) At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he drove his manual transmission truck an average of three times daily. (AR 43.) Although Plaintiff reported on his applications that he needed help to dress himself, Plaintiff testified at the hearing that he brushed his own teeth and shaved, bathed, and dressed himself. (AR 44, 187.) He also cooked ...

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