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Tammara Thompson v. Michael J. Astrue

October 31, 2011

TAMMARA THOMPSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Sheri Pym United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I.

INTRODUCTION

On September 17, 2010, plaintiff Tammara Thompson filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue, seeking a review of a denial of disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). Both plaintiff and defendant have consented to proceed for all purposes before the assigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

A single disputed issue is presented for decision here: whether the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination at step four -- that plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a retail sales clerk -- is consistent with plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and supported by substantial evidence. Joint Stipulation ("JS") at 5-16, 17-25, 26-28.

Having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record, the court concludes that, as detailed herein, the ALJ failed to make specific findings of the relation of plaintiff's RFC to the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work as actually performed, and the ALJ's finding that plaintiff could return to her past relevant work as generally performed is inconsistent with her RFC. But such error was harmless in light of the ALJ's alternative finding that plaintiff could perform other work that exists in the national and regional economies. Therefore, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits.

II.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was 45 years old on the date of her January 21, 2010 administrative hearing, has a high school education. See Administrative Record ("AR") at 42, 45, 177. Her past relevant work includes employment as a security guard and retail sales clerk. Id. at 72-73, 197-99.

Plaintiff has filed three prior applications for SSI and at least one prior application for DIB -- all based on an alleged disability beginning December 22, 1999. See AR at 22. Plaintiff's DIB application was denied by ALJ Levine on March 26, 2004. Id. at 23. Plaintiff's first SSI application was filed on March 16, 2001, which was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 22. Plaintiff did not appeal. Id. Plaintiff's second application for SSI, filed on August 20, 2002, was denied at the hearing level by ALJ Levine. Id. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals council but review was denied. Id. On April 6, 2004, plaintiff filed a third application for SSI, which was denied by ALJ Schloss on August 6, 2007. Id. at 22, 82-93. Review of ALJ Schloss's decision was denied by the Appeals Council. Id. at 22.

After those benefits denials, plaintiff filed the applications for SSI and DIB at issue here on September 24, 2007 and October 10, 2007, respectively. AR at 144-47, 148-52. Plaintiff alleged that she has been disabled since December 22, 1999 due to chronic fatigue, asthma, back and neck injuries, bad feet, heel spurs, fibromyalgia, depression with anxiety, carpal tunnel, disc disease, and arthritis in the knees, neck and back. Id. at 22, 46, 102, 144-47, 148-52. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which she filed a request for a hearing. Id. at 96, 97, 98, 99, 102-08, 109, 110, 111, 112-14.

On January 21, 2010, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. AR at 40, 42-73, 79-81. The ALJ also heard testimony from Elizabeth G. Brown-Ramos, a vocational expert ("VE"). Id. at 74-78, 138-40.On March 23, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's request for benefits. Id. at 22-35.

Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of disability. AR at 25.

At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff continues to suffer from the severe impairments previously identified by ALJ Schloss, consisting of "asthma and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine at the CS-C7 levels with mild indentation on the thecal sac." AR at 26. The ALJ also found that plaintiff's medically-determined impairments are, in combination, severe. Id. In addition to the severe impairments just listed, plaintiff's other medically-determined impairments include heel spurs/plantar ...


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