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Matlack v. Barnhart

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


March 22, 2004

JACQUIE MATLACK, CLAIMANT,
v.
JOANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, Senior District Judge

OPINION

Jacquie Matlack ("Claimant") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act") *fn1 for review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. For the following reasons, the Court will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

I.

On August 24, 2000, Claimant filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income with the Social Security Administration alleging an inability to work. Claimant's applications were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (R. at 12).

On January 9, 2002, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 12-19). The ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Id. The ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability on September 4, 1991. (R. at 13, 18). The ALJ also found that Claimant's medical complaints did not singly or combined establish a severe impairment as required by the criteria in the Commissioners Listing of Impairments, and the limitations resulting from these alleged medical complaints were not supported by objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. Part 404(P), App. 1.; (R. at 16, 18). Finally, the ALJ found that Claimant had regained the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work prior to December 31, 1996, the date she was last insured for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as prescribed by 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(f). (R. at 17, 18).

II.

Claimant was born on March 7, 1955. (R. at 27). She completed high school and one year of cosmetology school (R. at 28), and resides in Sewell, New Jersey with her husband. (R. at 26-27). Claimant was last employed in 1991, working as a manager at Wawa. (R. at 29).

Claimant has relevant employment experience. In 1982, Claimant was employed by First Class Leasing Company, Inc. as a leasing agent. Her duties included both office work and delivering cars to customers. (R. at 33, 77). From 1983 to 1985, Claimant worked for Martin Chevrolet Buick, Inc. as a title clerk processing registration and title paperwork as well as dropping off and picking up documentation at the Motor Vehicle Bureau. (R. at 34, 78-79). In 1986, she began working as a personal secretary at Edmund Scientific, performing mostly office work, until she was promoted to director of sales, which required her to travel to trade shows. (R. at 34-35, 79). During her employment at Edmund Scientific in 1986, Claimant also worked for Burns Auto-Dealers as a sales and leasing agent. (R. at 34-35, 80). While working for Edmund Scientific in 1990, Claimant also worked for Bee-Kay Enterprises, Inc. as an office manager. (R. at 35-36, 82). Finally, while working for Edmund Scientific in 1991, Claimant also worked for Wawa, Inc. unloading supplies and stocking shelves. (R. at 30, 83). On September 4, 1991, during the course of her duties at Wawa, Claimant slipped and fell while carrying merchandise; the items she was carrying fell on top of her. (R. at 29). Since then, she has not engaged in any substantial gainful employment. (R. at 13, 18).

On October 21, 1991, Claimant was evaluated by Dr. Roy Gorin, M.D.. (R. at 14). The examination showed good range of motion in the neck, pain in the shoulder but no weakness, and some pain in the back and knee. Dr. Gorin recommended that Claimant "get back to the work force." Id. A radiological exam dated September 6, 1991, performed by Dr. Beran, showed "mild rotation of the lumbar spine." (R. at 307). A second exam dated September 25, 1991, performed by Dr. Mallon, showed "minimum arthrotic changes in the mid dorsal area." (R. at 501).

The record shows that on November 1, 1991, Claimant began treatment with Dr. Thomas Obade, M.D., for neck, shoulder, back, and thigh pain. (R. at 208, 372). She started physical therapy and was showing signs of improvement. (R. at 370-72). By December 4, 1991, Dr. Obade reported that Claimant was doing better. (R. at 370). X-rays showed minimal spurring of the shoulder. Dr. Obade believed that Claimant would be able to return to a job that required heavy lifting in four weeks (R. at 370) and could return to light duty immediately. (R. at 14). On January 3, 1992, X-rays showed minor spur formation in Claimant's right knee and dorsal spine. (R. at 163, 368).

On January 20, 1992, Claimant underwent the first of three knee surgeries performed by Dr. Obade. (R. at 161, 457). By May Dr. Obade reported that her strength was growing, while her "difficulty was when she was walking [or] doing twisting movements." (R. at 361). By June of 1992, Dr. Obade reported that Claimant was lifting more weight, had full range of motion in her knee, and only minor tenderness remained. (R. at 359).

On September 22, 1992, Claimant underwent a second knee surgery. (R. at 165-67, 471). A month latter Claimant was doing better and was eager to return to work. (R. at 354, 217). In November, a nerve study showed that the muscles in her right leg were functioning normally. (R. at 351). Dr. Obade reported in December that while there was some crepitus, Claimant was gaining muscle tone, had 140 degrees of flexion, and had no knee effusion. Id.

On February 4, 1993, Claimant underwent a third knee surgery. (R. at 170, 479). By May 1993, Dr. Obade reported that Claimant was "making satisfactory progress" and was able to bear some weight on her knee. (R. at 348). However, in April, Dr. Obade reported that it was unlikely that Claimant would be able to return to a job that involved heavy lifting. (R. at 346). Claimant's knee was doing well in May, while range of motion in her back was limited. Neurological exams showed nothing abnormal. (R. at 344). An MRI dated July 24, 1993, showed Claimant's lumbar spine to be normal (R. at 442), and on July 30, 1993, Dr. Obade was hopeful that Claimant would return to work in a few more weeks. (R. at 341). In August Dr. Obade encouraged Claimant to increase her activities at physical therapy. (R. at 342). She began receiving epidural injections from Dr. Giorgio in September. (R. at 339-340). In November, Dr. Obade reported that while her knees were doing well, Claimant's "main difficulty presently appears to be her back." (R. at 337).

In January 1994, a neurologial exam showed Claimant's lower extremities to be intact, but her back had only 25 percent normal range of motion. (R. at 336). However, Claimant missed the rest of her January appointments. In February 1994, Claimant had limited range of motion in her back, but her knees seemed to be getting better. By the end of March, it was believed that Claimant had reached a plauteau of recovery. (R. at 335). There is nothing in the record to indicate that Claimant received medical care from April 1994 to October 1994. When she did return to the doctor in October 1994, she had a good range of motion in her knees and 50 percent of a normal range of motion in her back. (R. at 334).

Claimant did not visit the doctor again until May of 1995, when X-rays showed spur formation in the knees. (R. at 334). By June of 1995, she had only mild limitations of range of motion in her knees and back. (R. at 333). Although an MRI of her lumbar spine was normal, Claimant continued to complain of back pain and limited range of motion, as well as knee tenderness in August. (R. at 332). Claimant did not visit the doctor again until mid-October 1995. During this visit she complained of diffuse pain and headaches. Her back was 50 percent of the normal range of motion, while the range of motion in her knees was good. Id.

There is no evidence in the record to show that Claimant visited the doctor between October 1995 and February 1996. In February, Dr. Obade reported continued low back pain and limited range of motion, diffuse tenderness and mild restrictions in knee range of motion, as well as mild diffuse tenderness in the shoulders. (R. at 331).

The record shows that Claimant did not visit the doctor again until May 1996, when she complained of knee, shoulder, and back pain. Range of motion was 25 percent in her back and normal in her knees. Id. In August she had 50 percent range of motion in her back, while her knees had a mild limitation in range of motion and a neurological exam showed the lower extremities were intact. (R. at 330). In November 1996, Dr. Obade reported continued knee pain and crepitus, and that Claimant desired another arthroscopic surgery on her knee. Id. The surgery was not approved by insurance. (R. at 329). Claimant was last insured in December of 1996. (R. at 12).

In June of 1998, Claimant made her first visit to a psychiatrist, Dr. McGowen. Dr. McGowen found that Claimant had a chronic pain disorder, as well as a depressive disorder (R. at 521-23), but he did not feel that psychiatric treatment was needed. (R. at 281). Additionally, a May 2000 MRI of the Claimant's knee was normal (R. at 263), and the state medical review of Claimant, performed in October 2000, was normal. (R. at 95-100).

III.

The standard of review that a court utilizes in reviewing a final determination of the Commissioner is set forth in 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. 1383(c)(3). Findings of fact by the Commissioner that are supported by "substantial evidence" are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Lewis v. Califano, 616 F.2d 73, 76 (3d Cir. 1980). The administrative decision "should be accompanied by a clear and satisfactory explanation of the basis on which it rests." Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981).

The decision should indicate not only the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusion, but also any "significant probative evidence" that was rejected and the reasons for its rejection. Id. at 705. The Third Circuit has elaborated further on the proper standard of review stating: [O]ur decisions make clear that determinations of the existence vel non of substantial evidence is not merely a quantitative exercise. A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the Secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983).

In reaching a conclusion that a claimant is capable of performing a certain category of work, the ALJ must analyze and explain the weight he has given to all probative evidence. Gober v. Mathews, 574 F.2d 772, 776-77 (3d Cir. 1978). Although deference is given to administrative decisions, it is the duty of the reviewing court to scrutinize the entire record to determine whether the ALJ's findings are rational and supported by substantial evidence. Id. It is within this Court's discretion to affirm, modify, or reverse a Commissioner's final decision with or without remand. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

IV.

Regulations promulgated under the Act establish a five-step process for the ALJ's evaluation of a claimant's disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the first step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is so engaged, his application will be denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). In this case, it is uncontested that Claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of her alleged disability on September 4, 1991. (R. at 18).

If the claimant is not employed, the ALJ proceeds to the second step and determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c) and 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1511, 416.911(a)(1). A claimant who does not have a "severe impairment" is not disabled. "Disability", as defined by the Social Security Act (the Act), is the: Inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). Here the ALJ found that the medical evidence did not establish a "severe" impairment prior to the date she was last insured. (R. at 18).

Third, if the claimant's impairment is found to be severe, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment is in the Listing of Impairments. 20 C.F.R. 404(P), App. 1. An individual is disabled within the meaning of these provisions: Only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled, and the evaluation ends there. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ proceeds to step four. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). The ALJ found here that Claimant did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that taken together would be considered severe.

The fourth step of the analysis requires the ALJ to determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from returning to work performed in the past. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If she is found capable of performing her previous work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If the claimant is no longer able to perform her past work, the evaluation must continue to the last step. In this case the ALJ found Claimant could return to her previous work as a secretary, and thus the analysis ended at stage four.

The fifth step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing some other work in the national economy. In doing so, the ALJ considers the claimant's age, education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 426.920(f). Entitlement to benefits is dependant upon a finding that the claimant is incapable of performing some other type of work in the national economy. Id.

The application of these standards involves shifting burdens of proof. The claimant has the burden of demonstrating both steps one and two. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146-47 n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2293-2294, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). If the claimant is unable to meet this burden, the process ends and the claimant does not receive benefits. Id.

If the claimant carries these burdens and demonstrates that the impairment is one within the Listings of Impairments and is thus conclusively disabling, she has satisfied her burden of proof and is automatically entitled to benefits. Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146-47 n.5, 107 S.Ct. at 2293-2294. If the impairment is not conclusively disabling the claimant must prove "at step four that the impairment prevents [her] from performing [her] past work." Id.; see also Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner to show at step five that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Id.

On January 18, 2002, ALJ Mark G. Barrett found that: (1) it was undisputed that Claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her accident on September 4, 1991; (2) Claimant's mental impairment is not severe because the medical evidence did not establish Claimant's alleged depression as severe as of her last insured period; (3) although Claimant has chrodromalacia of the right and left knees and a mild lumbar vertebral spurring these impairments do not singly or combined fulfil the requirements of 20 C.F.R. 404, App. 1(P); (4) Claimant's allegations regarding her limitations prior to December 31, 1996, are not supported by a preponderance of the evidence; (5) the reports of Claimant's treating physician provide persuasive evidence that Claimant is not disabled; (6) because Claimant regained the residual functional capacity to perform her prior work as a secretary before December 31, 1996, Claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work as a secretary, a job that is generally performed in the national economy; (7) and therefore, the Claimant was not under a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act at any time on or prior to December 31, 1996.

V.

Claimant contends that the ALJ failed to: (1) recognize that she has a severe impairment; (2) properly determine her residual functional capacity; (3) consider all of the medical evidence; and (4) call a vocational expert. Claimant therefore asserts that she is entitled to summary judgment.

Summary judgment is appropriate where "`the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must construe the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Pollock v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir. 1986). The role of the court is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). Under the substantial evidence test the record must contain such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as supportive of the conclusion reached. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971). A.

Claimant contends that the ALJ failed to properly determine that she has a severe mental impairment or combination of impairments that, taken together, can be considered severe. Claimant argues that Dr. Obade's reports, along with Dr. McGowan's 1998 psychological examination show a severe mental impairment before December 31, 1996, when she was last insured. Claimant argues that in holding that she does not have a severe mental impairment or combination of impairments the ALJ was not entitled to give weight to the findings of the Social Security Administration reviewing physician, and that the ALJ did not fulfill his analysis requirement under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) and 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 404.1521, 404.939. This Court affirms the ALJ's finding that the medical evidence does not show that the Claimant suffered from a severe mental impairment prior to the period she was last insured.

In reviewing the ALJ findings under the substantial evidence test this Court considers whether in light of the whole record the ALJ's decision was reasonable. Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474 (1951); NLRB v. Columbian Enamel & Stamping Co., 306 U.S. 292 (1939). A severe impairment must significantly limit the claimant's ability to do basic physical or mental work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(c). To be entitled to disability insurance benefits a claimant must show that she was insured at the time she became disabled. Kane v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 1130 (3d Cir. 1985).

In this case Claimant was last insured on December 31, 1996, she did not receive a psychological examination until June of 1998, and her treating physician's medical records from 1991 to 1996 are devoid of evidence that Claimant suffered from any mental ailment. Reports by neither Dr. McGowan, Claimant's treating psychiatrist, nor Dr. Obade, Claimant's treating orthopedic surgeon, contain any evidence that Claimant was suffering from a mental impairment before December 31, 1996.

Dr. McGowan's evaluation in June of 1998 found that Claimant was suffering from a chronic pain disorder and a depressive disorder, and her complaints were of a long standing nature. However, this is not evidence that Claimant suffered from mental impairments before December 31, 1996, the date she was last insured. Dr. McGowan also stated that Claimant required no treatment for any mental ailment. Dr. Obade's reports, noting that Claimant complained of knee and back pain between 1991 and 1996, similarly provide no evidence that Claimant suffered from a mental impairment. Dr. Obade at no time intimates that Claimant's pain was attributable to a mental impairment or suggests that Claimant should visit a mental health professional.

Contrary to Claimant's assertions, the Commissioner is entitled to rely on the opinions of a state agency medical consultant. Claimant misstates the court's holding in Claussen v. Charter, 950 F.Supp. 1287, 1296 (D. N.J. 1996). The Claussen court did not hold that an ALJ may never rely on the state agency medical consultant's opinion; rather the court reasoned that an ALJ may not reject the testimony of a treating physician where the only evidence controverting that testimony is the state agency medical consultant's opinion. Id.; see also Alexander v. Shalala, 927 F.Supp. 785, 795 (D.N.J. 1995). In fact, 20 C.F.R § 1527(f)(2) states that ALJs will review the opinions of state agency medical or psychological consultants.

Further, Claimant's argument that the ALJ's analysis of the severity of her disability was erroneous is unconvincing. The ALJ is required to provide explanations regarding the relative weight and credibility fo the evidence, which the ALJ did in this case. Accordingly, this Court finds that there was substantial evidence to support the ALJ's conclusion that Claimant did not have severe mental impairment when she was last insured.

B.

Claimant also argues that her medical evidence establishes that she was unable to return to her prior work, and that in finding that she retained the functional capacity to perform a full range of sedentary work activity, the ALJ failed to consider all of the medical evidence. Thus, Claimant argues that the ALJ's failure to explain why he rejected each piece of medical evidence as well as his failure to give weight to the treating physicians' opinions is legal error which requires reversal.

In step four of the adminstrative review process the ALJ must determine if the claimant can return to her prior work in the national economy. Jobs are classified as sedentary, light, medium, heavy, or very heavy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567. Sedentary work involves lifting no more than ten pounds at time, occasionally lifting or carrying small lightweight articles, and may require walking or standing occasionally. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a). Once the ALJ has found that a claimant's past work is within her residual functional capacity the burden shifts to the claimant to prove that she cannot perform her past work. Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 263 (3d Cir. 2000).

After reviewing the record this Court holds that the ALJ's findings that Claimant retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, and that Claimant's past work as a secretary is within that residual functional capacity are based on substantial evidence in the record. The record shows that as early as October 21, 1991, just a month after her accident, Claimant's physician, Dr. Gorin, was pleased with Claimant's progress and recommended she "get back to the work force." (R. at 14). In December 1991, Dr. Obade reported that Claimant should return to heavy duty work within four weeks. (R. at 370). In January 1992, Dr. Obade reported that Claimant's main difficulties occurred when walking and twisting. (R. at 361). Although Dr. Obade reported in February 1993, that Claimant would likely not return to a job with heavy lifting, he at no time placed any limits on Claimant's work activity and repeatedly encouraged her to increase her activity at physical therapy. (R. at 346, 342). Indeed, all of the neurological exams performed on Claimant show that she is intact and functioning normally, and there are large gaps in her visits to the doctor for treatment. Additionally, Dr. McGowin's psychological review of Claimant was performed after December 31, 1996, when she was no longer insured, and is not evidence of a mental defect while insured. In any case, it does not show that her current mental state would interfere with a sedentary work regimen. (R. at 521-23).

The ALJ's decision clearly shows that he reviewed each piece of evidence presented and found that the evidence did not document significant functional limitations. Consequently, he found that Claimant retained her functional capacity to perform sedentary work. (R. at 12-19). The ALJ did not reject or fail to give weight to the reports by Dr. Gorin, Dr. Obade, and Dr. McGowin as Claimant asserts. Rather, he found, and this Court agrees, that the reports of these treating physicians did not present enough evidence to show that Claimant was significantly limited at any time that she was still insured.

C.

Claimant finally alleges that the ALJ failed to call an expert witness to determine whether there is other work that she can perform in the national economy as required by step five of the Social Security Administration five-step process for evaluating disability claims under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259 (3d Cir. 2000). However, because the record shows that Claimant can perform her past work this case was rightfully decided at stage four and there is no need to proceed to the stage five Sykes requirements. 228 F.3d 263.

VI.

For the aforementioned reasons, the Court will affirm the Commissioner's final decision denying Claimant's application. The Court will issue an appropriate order.

Joseph E. Irenas, S.U.S.D.J.


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