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Joenathan Farr v. Michael J. Astrue

February 28, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stephen J. Hillman United States Magistrate Judge



This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). The action arises under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), which authorizes the Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the records before the Commissioner. Plaintiff and Defendant have filed their pleadings, Defendant has filed the Certified Administrative Record (AR), and each party has filed its supporting brief. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.


On June 30, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI alleging an inability to work due to disability beginning March 1, 1991. (AR 10, 105-12). Plaintiff claimed he became disabled due to mental illness, panic disorder, anxiety, depression, nervousness, and headaches. (AR 151-59). Plaintiff's application was initially denied on November 25, 2009, and denied upon reconsideration on May 5, 2010. (AR 10, 57-61, 65-69). Following an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Plaintiff's application was denied on September 12, 2011. (AR 7-19). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 30, 2012.

Plaintiff makes two challenges to the ALJ's decision denying Benefits. Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ (1) failed to properly consider the combination of Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments and improperly determined Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), and (2) improperly relied on the Vocational Expert's (VE) testimony. (Pl.'s Br. 1-10).

For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claims lack merit.



Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider all of Plaintiff's physical and mental impairments, in part or in combination, and their effect on his ability to sustain work activity or maintain a substantial gainful activity. (Pl.'s Br. 2-8). Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred in determining his RFC. Id. Defendant argues the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's physical and mental impairments. (Def.'s Br. 2-8).

1. The ALJ Properly Considered Plaintiff's Physical and Mental Impairments.

To qualify for SSI, it must be shown that Plaintiff has a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520.

In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: anxiety disorder, major depression, and chronic headaches. (AR 10-19). Plaintiff alleges the ALJ improperly determined that Plaintiff did not have severe back pain. (Pl.'s Br. 5). The second step of the sequential analysis requires that the ALJ determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is "severe" or a combination of impairments that is "severe." 20 C.F.R. §41.920(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is severe within the meaning of the Act if it significantly limits an individual's ability to perform basic work activities. Here, although Plaintiff did not allege an impairment of severe back pain in the application for SSI (AR 151-59), the ALJ reviewed and considered the objective evidence in the medical record which indicated that Plaintiff had been evaluated and treated for degenerative disc disease. (AR 12). In finding that Plaintiff's diagnosis of degenerative disc disease did not implicate a severe impairment, the ALJ relied on several findings in the medical record. First, diagnostic images showed Plaintiff had only mild degenerative disc disease (AR 308-11). Second, treatment for Plaintiff's back pain was limited to a recommendation to do back exercises as tolerated. (AR 287). Although Plaintiff was told to avoid heavy lifting, carrying or weight bearing activities for back care, pain management prescription medications were not required. Id. This would indicate that the severity of Plaintiff's back pain was mild and did not require more aggressive treatments such as therapy or surgery.

Plaintiff points to records indicating he suffered from arthritis of the spine which supports a finding of severe back pain. (Pl.'s Br. 6). However, the record shows that Plaintiff's own subjective opinion indicates he felt a very low level of pain, describing his pain intensity as 1 out of 10. (AR 390). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff's physical examination was within normal limits, indicating negative for straight-leg raising, normal motor ability, and normal motor and neurological exams. (AR 12, 288, 293, 297). Plaintiff testified about his back problems, but he did not indicate that he required pain medication or assistive devices. (AR 44-45). He did indicate he wore a back brace, but it had not been prescribed. (AR 44). Furthermore, the record indicates that Plaintiff had once declined pain medication. (AR 396). This would indicate the pain was not so severe that pain medication ...

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