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Sternberg v. Commissioner of Social Security

September 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pisano, District Judge.


Before the Court is Laurie Sternberg's ("Plaintiff") appeal from the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's request for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The Court has jurisdiction to review this matter under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and renders its decision without oral argument. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. For the reasons expressed below, the record provides substantial evidence supporting the Commissioner's decision that Plaintiff was not disabled. Accordingly, the Court affirms.


Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on December 13, 2005, alleging she has severe, disabling, physical impairments that included osteoarthritis in her knees, degenerative disc disease, pelvic pain/dislocation, arm weakness/pain, and rheumatoid arthritis. She alleges her disability began on March 18, 2004. Plaintiff last met the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2005. She was denied DIB on April 12, 2006, and again on reconsideration on October 13, 2006. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on November 20, 2006. The hearing was held on March 17, 2008 before Administrative Law Judge Daniel N. Shellhamer (the "ALJ"). On August 11, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the relevant sections of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2005, the date last insured. The Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 10, 2009. This action followed.


Plaintiff was born on January 9, 1956 and was previously the owner/operator of a retail appliance store from 1980-2000 (R. 87). She was involved in sales where she acted as a buyer and merchandiser of the store. Additionally, she acted as a liaison with the vendors and took part in advertising, financing and other management level duties. Plaintiff lives alone in a single story house.

Prior to the alleged date of onset, Plaintiff was a marathon runner with a history of knee problems. She first sought medical treatment for her knees in 1998. In 1999, Plaintiff was diagnosed with a benign tumor on her left femur. This resulted in her left leg being weaker than her left. Later that year, she underwent arthroscopic surgery for torn medial and lateral menisci in her left knee. A few months later a similar procedure was performed on the right knee.

Plaintiff continued to experience pain and she was subsequently diagnosed with moderate arthritis is both knees. In November 2001, she was advised by Dr. Mark Seckler, Plaintiff's orthopedist since 2001, to continue wearing an unloader brace on her right knee. (R. at 559.) In January 2002, she received the first of a series of injections designed to relieve the pain. (R. at 560.) Five injections were performed on each knee. (R. at 564.)

Plaintiff alleges her disability began on March 18, 2004. (R. at 12.) On March 31, 2004, Dr. Dominic Mazzochi, M.D., referred Plaintiff to New Jersey Diagnostic Imaging and Therapy, P.A. to obtain X-rays. (R. 390.) The X-rays of Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed minimal degenerative changes, and x-rays of the cervical spine showed degenerative changes at C5-6 and slight reversal of the normal cervical lordosis. (R. 390). In April 2004, Dr. Mazzochi referred her to New Jersey Diagnostic Imaging and Therapy to obtain an MRI of the lumbar and cervical spine. The MRI of the lumbar spine revealed a disc herniation at L5-S1 and a disc bulge at L4-5.

(R. at 388.) The MRI cervical spine showed small disc protrusions at C3-4 and C6-7, and mild diffuse disc bulges at C4-5 and C5-6. (R. at 388-89.)

In April 2004, Dr. Seckler, an orthopedist, stated that Plaintiff's prior knee problems were minimal and almost resolved. (R. at 194.) An MRI of the left knee, dated April 26, 2004, showed a partial medial meniscectomy and was suggestive of a recurrent tear of the medial meniscus with a loss of articular cartilage and edema (R. 386-87). Upon follow up on May 4, 2004, Dr. Seckler noted that Plaintiff was histrionic and that her complaints were grossly disproportionate to the objective findings. (R. at 193). Plaintiff attended physical therapy from May 18 through December 23, 2004 and was discharged with minimal complaints of difficulty and pain. (R. at 223.)

Between April and June 2004, Dr. Seckler saw Plaintiff for complaints of knee problems, pain in her neck, and headaches. On June 24, 2004, Dr. Seckler again reported that "her concerns and complaints [are] grossly disproportionate to objective findings." (R. at 192.) Dr. Seckler noted that Dr. Michael O' Hara, Plaintiff's pain management specialist, felt the same.

Id. Dr. Seckler recommended that Plaintiff speak to a psychiatrist because he felt that she suffered from depression and somatization. Id.

Plaintiff complained of mild weakness of the right bicep in May 2004. (R. at 365.) An examination by Dr. Susan Lage, a neurologist, showed limited rotation to the right and some spasm. (R. at 373.) An EMG of the right arm returned normal and she was recommended for physical therapy. (R. at 375.) In June 2004, Plaintiff complained of left lumbar radicular pain- an EMG of the left leg returned normal. (R. at 358, 362)

In July 2004, Plaintiff was diagnosed with cervical herniated nucleus pulposus, thoracic myofascitis and lumbar herniated nucleus pulposus. (R. at 195.) On July 22, 23, and 24 Plaintiff received spinal manipulation under anesthesia including: manipulation of the cervical, dorsal and lumbar spine, iliopsos stretch, and piriformis bow-string stretch. (R. at 195-218.) Subsequent to the procedures, Dr. O'Hara stated that considering the improvement in function and diminishing pain, her prognosis was good. (R. 202, 211).

On July 27, 2004, Dr. Manuel Banzon, an orthopedist, saw Plaintiff for her complaint of left knee pain. (R. at 222.) She was diagnosed with left medial compartment arthritis and was treated with Synvisc injections to the left knee. Id. Between August and September 2004, Plaintiff received a series of three injections. (R. 212). On October 12, 2004, Plaintiff underwent arthroscopic surgery on her left knee. (R. at 221.) The procedure included: partial medial and lateral meniscectomy, chondroplasty and synvectomy. Id. During the surgery Dr. Banzon found that there was significant damage to the articular surface of the knee. Id. He recommended physical therapy, Chondroitin, Cosamine sulfate, and Flexoril. (R. at 220-21.) On two separate follow up visits, November 1 and 22, 2004, Dr. Banzon noted Plaintiff's knee was much improved. (R. at 220.) On January 7, 2005 Dr. Banzon indicated Plaintiff was doing very well and responded to the conservative treatment. (R. at 219.)

Also in August 2004, Plaintiff complained low back pain. Dr. Banzon performed and examination and noted a diminished range of motion, spasms in the paralumbar area, and straight leg raising was positive at 30 degree bilaterally. (R. at 222.) In November 2004, Dr. O'Hara reported that trigger point injections to Plaintiff's cervical region were very beneficial for her cervicalgia (neck pain that does not radiate outwards). (R. at 513.) In December 2004 and January 2005, Plaintiff received lumbar epidural steroid injections at L5-S1 from Dr. O'Hara.

(R. at 510-12.) During a follow up on January 26, 2005, Plaintiff reported improvement from the first two injections. (R. at 508.) She received a chiropractic adjustment a few days after the third injection and reported some lower back and hip pain. Id. Plaintiff received another injection in March 2005, but there was no improvement. (R. at 506.) On April 15, 2005, Dr. O'Hara performed lumbar discography at L3-4, L4-5 and L5-S1. (R. at 349.) A CT scan of the lumbar spine was taken the immediately after the procedure and revealed annular tears on the right side at L3-4, L4-5 and L5-S1, some disc herniation at L4-L5, and a small disc herniation at L5-S1. (R. at 351.)

In May 2005, Plaintiff saw Dr. Lage for low back pain radiating down both legs. (R. at 367.) She was scheduled for an EMG of the left lower extremity which returned essentially normal. (R. at 371.) On June 14, 2005, Dr. Bruce Rosenblum, a neurological surgeon, saw Plaintiff for her complaint of back pain radiating down the left leg, accompanied by left leg weakness. Plaintiff stated that epidural injections, chiropractic care, and medications did not treat her pain. (R. at 375.) An MRI of the lumbar sacral spine revealed no major occlusion of the spinal canal or neural foramen. (R. at 376.) Dr. Rosenblum noted that he was not sure where her pain was coming from and all tests, including an EMG/NCV study, were within normal limits. Id.

An MRI of the lumbar spine performed in June 2005 showed a minimal disc bulge at L5-S1, but a subtle disc herniation previously located at L5-S1 was no longer present. (R. at 382-83.) In July 2005, Dr. Paul Marcotte, a neurologist, evaluated Plaintiff for back and leg pain she had experienced since 2004. (R. at 400.) Dr. Marcotte noted that Plaintiff complained of chronic back pain and left leg pain. (R. at 401.) He reported associated swelling in Plaintiff's leg but found minimal degenerative changes in her lumbar spine. Id. An EMG and diskogram "did not indicate an obvious cause for her symptoms." Id. He recommended imaging studies of the pelvis to rule out an interpelvis cause for her symptoms. Id.

In August 2005, Dr. Craig Israelite, an orthopedist, noted some medial joint line pain and mild swelling, but no gross instability. (R. at 399.) Dr. Israelite reported that the cause of Plaintiff's symptoms was most likely underlying degenerative arthritis of the left knee and indicated she would not benefit from arthroscopy. Id. He additionally noted that he was against arthroscopic surgery for the left knee. (R. at 399.) In late September 2005, an MRI of Plaintiff's left knee further showed osteoarthritis of the medial compartment. (R. at 397.) Dr. Israelite suggested she may need knee replacement, but recommended putting off the replacements as long as possible and use conservative treatment. Id.

Plaintiff received additional physical therapy from October 2 through December 4, 2005.

(R. at 402-488.) In the physical therapy discharge summary, it is noted that Plaintiff reported that her back was staying in alignment more frequently, that she was capable of putting in back in place on her own with the exercises she learned at therapy, and that she was joining a health club to continue her exercise. (R. at 402.) In October 2005, Dr. Renay Friedman, Plaintiff's treating chiropractor ...

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