The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini, U.S.D.J.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. FEDERAL BLDG. & U.S. COURT HOUSE 50 WALNUT STREET, P.O. BOX 419 NEWARK, NJ 07101-0419 (973) 645-6340;
Plaintiff Richard Kracht ("Kracht") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). There was no oral argument. Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff is a forty-two year old male who claims to suffer from severe psychiatric and psychological conditions with a history of substance abuse. (Administrative Transcript, hereinafter "Tr.," at 19-20, 218, 222). He was born in New Jersey and currently lives in Edison with his parents. (Tr. at 12). He has not worked since 2005 and is supported by his parents. (Tr. at 19, 432). Although Plaintiff performs minor chores around the house, maintains his room, and cooks infrequently, he relies heavily on his parents to perform the majority of the household tasks. (Tr. at 24, 113-17). He strongly dislikes being in public places and can grow anxious about leaving the house, taking out the trash, or showering. (Tr. at 20, 444-46). Plaintiff self-medicates by drinking several 24 ounce cans of beer throughout the week, whenever he feels anxious. (Tr. at 20-21). He has a history of hard drug usage, including cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, mushrooms, PCP, and peyote, but he has refrained from using illegal drugs since the late 1990s. (Tr. at 20, 201-02).
Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on June 24, 2005, alleging disability since that date. (Tr. at 16, 66, 78-80). The claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 16, 40, 44). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing, which took place on January 3, 2008 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") James Andres in Newark. (Tr. at 16, 56). On April 8, 2008, Plaintiff's application was denied by the ALJ. (Tr. at 16). On August 18, 2008, Plaintiff obtained a review of the matter by the Appeals Council, who vacated the hearing decision and remanded the matter to the ALJ for a new hearing. (Tr. at 16). On April 2, 2009, the case again appeared before ALJ Andres, who denied Plaintiff's petition on April 30, 2009. (Tr. at 16, 30). Plaintiff subsequently sought review by the Appeals Council, but it found no grounds on which to review the matter and denied Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. at 6-8). Thereafter, Plaintiff commenced this action in the district court. (Plaintiff's Brief, hereinafter "Pl. Br.," at 1).
The ALJ reviewed Kracht's medical records during the course of his analysis. (Tr. at 19, 23-26). Dr. Carmencita T. Lanez ("Dr. Lanez"), Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist since October of 1999, diagnosed him with symptoms of an anxious and depressed mood. (Tr. at 16, 222-25). She prescribed psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy, consisting of one psychiatric session every three to six months and samples of Effexor XR and Xanax. (Tr. at 16, 446-447). Dr. Lanez opined that Plaintiff was unable to work due to his poor ability to adjust to a job, recurring panic attacks, and agoraphobia. (Tr. at 166-71, 286). She also stated that Plaintiff had been sober for several years since November 2000, although this account is disputed several times throughout the record. (Tr. at 26, 29, 222). Furthermore, Dr. Lanez failed to provide any recent treatment records for the ALJ's consideration. (Tr. at 30).
Plaintiff also had a consultative examination with Dr. Jan S. Cavanaugh ("Dr. Cavanaugh") and a mental residual functional capacity assessment by Dr. G. Kleinerman ("Dr. Kleinerman"). (Tr. at 24-25). Dr. Cavanaugh found Plaintiff to be appropriately dressed, with fluent speech intelligibility and coherent thought processes. However, Dr. Cavanaugh also found Plaintiff to be highly anxious with mildly impaired attention and concentration faculties. He diagnosed Plaintiff with panic disorder, agoraphobia, and drug abuse in full remission. He concluded that Plaintiff's psychiatric problems may significantly interfere with his ability to function on a daily basis. (Tr. at 155-56). Dr. Kleinerman reported that Plaintiff had "slight" restriction of daily living activities and difficulties in maintaining social functioning. Furthermore, Plaintiff "often" had deficiencies in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. However, Dr. Kleinerman concluded that there was "insufficient evidence" to prove that Plaintiff's psychiatric issues resulted in extended episodes of deterioration. (Tr. at 158-60, 194-95). Dr. Thomas Harding ("Dr. Harding"), a state agency psychologist, subsequently reviewed all the evidence in the file and affirmed Dr. Kleinerman's assessment. (Tr. at160).
On November 7, 2008, Plaintiff was admitted to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey ("UMDNJ") for suicidal ideation and alcohol intoxication. (Tr. at 304, 312-13). Plaintiff reportedly pulled a knife out in front of his mother and threatened suicide. (Tr. at 312-13). He was heavily intoxicated throughout the episode. (Tr. at 289). While undergoing a nursing assessment at UMDNJ on November 7, 2008, Plaintiff reported daily drinking and slight abuse of his Xanax prescription. (Tr. at 289). After spending several days in a detoxification ward, he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, recurrent, unspecified; alcohol dependence, unspecified; and anxiety disorder. Plaintiff was released on November 13, 2008, and his caretakers noted that he was able to relate well and that his condition had improved since he ceased his alcohol consumption. (Tr. at 26, 321-23).
ALJ Andres evaluated the evidence and testimony according to the five step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Social Security Administration pursuant to 20 CFR 416.920(a). (Tr. at 17-18, 27-33). As part of this process, the ALJ questioned vocational expert ("VE") Pat Green ("Green") regarding the work prospects of a hypothetical individual with the Plaintiff's disabilities. The ALJ noted that this individual had the residual functional capacity to perform work with no physical limitations but had moderate limitations in his ability to interact appropriately with the public, respond to changes in the work setting, travel in unfamiliar places, or use public transportation. (Tr. at 31, 401-10).
On April 30, 2009, the ALJ held that Kracht was not disabled as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.905 and 416.920(g). (Tr. at 33). Specifically, the ALJ determined the following: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 24, 2005, (2) he has severe impairments which include depression, panic disorder with agoraphobia, and alcohol abuse, (3) Plaintiff's impairments, including the substance abuse disorder, meet sections 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09 of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR § 416.920(d)), (4) if the Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, the remaining limitations would continue to produce a severe impairment or combination of impairments, (5) if the Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, his impairments would not meet any of the impairments listed in the C.F.R.,*fn1 (6) if the Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would have the residual functional capacity to perform heavy work as defined in the C.F.R., (7) and jobs that Kracht could perform exist in significant numbers in the economy. (Tr. at 27-29, 31-33).
Kracht requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals council. (Tr. at 6-8). On October 5, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Kracht's request. (Tr. at 8). Thereafter, Plaintiff timely commenced this action in the District Court. (Pl. Br. at 1). Kracht alleges that the ALJ made the following errors when denying his claim: (1) the ALJ's findings lacked a scientific basis and (2) the ALJ failed to carry the burden of proof at both the third and ...