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Padilla v. Commissioner of Social Security

June 9, 2010

RE: PADILLA
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini Judge

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR . FEDERAL BLDG. & U.S. COURTHOUSE 50 WALNUT STREET, P.O . BOX 419 NEWARK, NJ 07101-0419 (973) 645-6340

LETTER OPINION

Dear Counsel:

Plaintiff Gabriel Padilla is a fifty year-old man, alleging disability due to back pain and vision problems. (R. 21, 91, 330.) Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying in part his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") Benefits. On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's administrative decision disallowing his claim was not supported by substantial evidence and must be reversed or remanded. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Padilla was born in Puerto Rico and now resides in Union City, New Jersey. (R. 21, 328.) In his last job, Padilla worked as a helper on a moving truck from January 2002 through March 2002. (R. 76.) Prior to that, Padilla's past work experience included employment as a truck driver, a furniture mover, and a warehouse worker. (R. 76.) Since leaving his last position in 2002 due to back pain, Padilla reports that he spends his days at home and is incapable of performing any housework. (R. 331, 334-35.)

On January 30, 2004, Padilla filed concurrent applications for DIB and SSI, claiming disability due to right eye blindness, left eye vision problems, lower back pain, pain in the knees and feet, and shortness of breath beginning on May 1, 2001. (R. 75-76, 91.) Padilla's claims were denied initially on October 21, 2004 and again upon reconsideration on May 25, 2005. (R. 19.) Following a hearing on January 16, 2007, ALJ Joel H. Friedman found Padilla to be "disabled" as of August 2, 2004, his 45th birthday, but not during the prior period from May 1, 2001 through August 1, 2004.*fn1 (R. 33.) In April 2009, the Appeals Council affirmed ALJ Friedman's decision. (R. 6-9.) Plaintiff now brings the instant appeal, challenging ALJ Friedman's finding that he was "not disabled" until August 2, 2004.

Since Plaintiff's appeal pertains solely to the period preceding August 2, 2004, this discussion of the facts also will focus on that time frame. During his hearing before ALJ Friedman, Padilla did not identify precisely when his back pain began; instead, he testified that his back injury developed gradually. (R. 330.) The medical evidence in the record shows that Plaintiff had an MRI of his lumbar spine on July 22, 2002, which revealed a herniated disc with thecal sac impingment at L5-S1. (R. 159.) A subsequent report noted this lumbar disc disease and a related prescription for Ibuprofen. (R. 255.) In this April 12, 2004 report, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Faheid, stated that Padilla's back pain grew worse with prolonged standing and walking. (R. 254.) Almost contemperaneously with Dr. Faheid, another physician, Dr. Elamir, opined on April 16, 2004 that Plaintiff's back pain limited his ability to do certain work-related activities, such as stand for more than two hours per day or carry more than 10 pounds at a time. (R. 198.)

During this time, the medical records reveal that Plaintiff was seeking treatment for vision problems. After cataract surgery on his right eye in November 2002, Plainitff continued to see an ophthalmologist complaining of darkening vision in that eye. (R. 179-186.) This ophthalmologist, Dr. Higgins, diagnosed optic nerve pallor and some dimming of Padilla's right eye vision. (R. 181.) A subsequent neuro-ophthalmalogical evaluation confirmed Plaintiff's right optic neuropathy. Further, Plaintiff's vision was assessed during this June 10, 2003 evaluation to be 20/60 in his right eye and 20/20 in his left eye. (R. 169.) Following these evaluations, Plaintiff continued to see various eye specialists for follow-up appointments. In their reports regarding Padilla's eye pain and alleged visual difficulties, each of these doctors noted that Plaintiff's left eye vision was 20/20 and that his right eye was no worse than 20/100. (R. 162, 164, 194, 226.) On June 2, 2004, Dr. Kaur, a consultive physician, noted that Plaintiff's vision was 20/20 in both eyes without glasses. (R. 226.) While Plaintiff's visual acuity was not markedly affected, one doctor noted that Plaintiff had a diminished visual field as well as diminishing depth perception in his right eye. (R. 275.) As such, this doctor recommended that Plaintiff not work at unprotected heights or with dangerous machinery. (R. 275, 276.)

Plaintiff Padilla now challenges ALJ Friedman's determination that he was "not disabled" from May 1, 2001 through August 1, 2004. In the instant appeal, Plaintiff alleges the following errors: (1) that the ALJ failed to find that Padilla suffered a severe mental impairment prior to October 2004; (2) that the ALJ did not analyze a combination of severe impairments at Step Three of the sequential analysis; and (3) that the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert at the hearing was insufficiently specific. Each of these challenges will be addressed in turn.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

For the purpose of this appeal, the court conducts a plenary review of the legal issues. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir.1999). The factual findings of the ALJ are reviewed "only to determine whether the administrative record contains substantial evidence supporting the findings." Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir.2000). When substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's factual findings, this Court must abide by the ALJ's determinations. See id. (citing 42 U.S. ยง 405(g)). Substantial evidence is "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir.2004) (citation omitted). "It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. Overall, the ...


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