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Smith v. Astrue

May 14, 2009

WAYNE SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dennis M. Cavanaugh, U.S.D.J.

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiff Wayne Smith's ("Plaintiff") appeal from the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's ("Commissioner") final decision denying his request for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). The Court has jurisdiction to review this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) and decides this matter without oral argument pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. Because the Court finds that the hypothetical presented by the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") included all of the Plaintiff's credibly established limitations, and because the definition of "moderate" presented by the Vocational Expert ("VE") did not create a credible limitation, Plaintiff's appeal is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural Background

Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and SSI with the Commissioner on August 18, 2004. Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Following a hearing before ALJ Donna A. Krappa, Plaintiff's claims were again denied on November 20, 2007. Plaintiff then sought review by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council issued a decision on April 10, 2008 finding no grounds to review. Plaintiff now appeals that decision to this Court.

B. Factual Background

i. Medical Assessments

Dr. Benito Tan is a state agency medical consultant. Dr. Tan reviewed the evidence of record and completed a "Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment" form (the "Form") on February 10, 2005. Section I of the Form includes a space for "Summary Conclusions," consisting of twenty mental function items grouped under four main categories: (1) "understanding and memory"; (2) "sustained concentration and persistence"; (3) "social interaction"; and (4) "adaptation." The Form includes check boxes that allow a doctor to rate the degree of limitation for each of the twenty items. Dr. Tan marked boxes indicating that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in fourteen of the twenty items, and that Plaintiff had only moderate limitations in six of these items. In Section III of the Form, entitled the "Functional Capacity Assessment" section, Dr. Tan concluded that Plaintiff was able to follow instructions, maintain pace/persistence, concentration and attention, relate appropriately, and adapt in work settings.

Dr. Royston Cruicshank is Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist. In a document entitled, "Report of Contact," Dr. Cruicshank diagnosed Plaintiff's condition as depressive disorder, without further specification. He stated that Plaintiff was not always compliant with medication, attended appointments sporadically, and that Plaintiff's medications partially eased his depressive symptoms and helped with insomnia. Dr. Cruicshank concluded that Plaintiff could function adequately in a job setting provided that he did not have to work around others.

M. Graff, Ph.D. reviewed the evidence of record and completed the Form on December 21, 2005. Dr. Graff marked boxes in Section I noting that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in ten of the twenty items, and that he had moderate limitations in ten of the twenty items. In Section III, Dr. Graff referenced Dr. Cruicshank's "Report of Contact" and stated that Plaintiff was capable of at least entry level work in a setting with minimal interpersonal contact.

ii. Testimony

Rocco Meola testified as a VE at Plaintiff's administrative hearing. During his testimony, the ALJ posed a hypothetical directing him to assume that Plaintiff was limited to medium work, simple, routine, repetitive, one or two-step tasks and jobs where he would have only occasional interaction with the public or co-workers. The VE responded that, under such circumstances, Plaintiff could perform his former job as a loader and unloader of trucks as well as his job as a warehouse worker. The ALJ subsequently asked the VE whether Plaintiff could perform his past work, particularly considering Dr. Tan's statement that Plaintiff was able to follow instructions, maintain pace, persistence, concentration and attention and relate appropriately and adapt in work settings. The VE responded that Plaintiff would not be precluded from performing his prior work. The VE also noted that Plaintiff's prior employment, including his work unloading and loading trucks and as a general warehouse worker, were low stress jobs that did not include significant decision-making.

Plaintiff's counsel then posed a series of hypotheticals to the VE incorporating the "moderate limitations" noted by Drs. Tan and Graff in Section I of their respective Forms. The limitations presented to the VE included Plaintiff's "moderate" limitations on his abilities to: carry out details; maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; complete normal work-periods without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms; perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable rest periods; accept instructions; respond to criticism from supervisors; respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; maintain social functioning; and maintaining concentration, persistence, and ...


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