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Julene P. Christie v. Michael J. Astrue

August 15, 2011

JULENE P. CHRISTIE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wolfson, United States District Judge:

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Julene P. Christie ("Plaintiff") appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"). The Court has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff contends that the record, when considered in full, substantiates her claims and requires a conclusion that she is entitled to disability insurance benefits under sections 216(I) and 223 of the Act. Specifically, Plaintiff maintains that the Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") erred in determining that Plaintiff was not disabled as of her alleged onset date of December 31, 1989. After reviewing the administrative record, this Court finds that the ALJ's decision is based on the substantial evidentiary support required by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and, therefore, the ALJ's decision is affirmed in its entirety.

I. OVERVIEW

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff first filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on July 29, 1985, claiming onset as early as December 2, 1984 due to diabetes and arthritis. Tr. 737. These applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff did not request a hearing before an ALJ. Id.

Plaintiff filed her second application (for DIB only) on November 1, 1990 with an onset date of December 20, 1989, due to arthritis. Id. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration. After a hearing, the ALJ vacated the decision to enable the state agency to fully adjudicate Plaintiff's mental disorder. Id. On remand, however, Plaintiff's claim was again denied and no appeal was filed.

Plaintiff filed a third application for DIB on September 10, 1993, alleging that she had become disabled on August 9, 1993, due to arthritis. Tr. 737. This claim was also denied initially and on reconsideration. Id.

Plaintiff filed a fourth application for disability insurance benefits on December 22, 1994, alleging that she had become disabled on December 20, 1989. Tr. 460-63. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id.

Plaintiff filed another application for DIB on April 30, 1995, alleging disability since December 20, 1989, due to asthma, heart problems, arthritis, reading problems, emotional problems and obesity. R. 738. On July 18, 1995, Plaintiff's application was denied. Plaintiff filed a request for reconsideration on September 14, 1995 which was denied on October 19, 1995. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ. The ALJ dismissed Plaintiff's claim on February 25, 1998, after finding that a previous application for benefits barred the 1995 claim on res judicata grounds. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Appeals Council on March 9, 1998. The Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's dismissal and remanded the claim to the ALJ finding that the introduction of new and material evidence rendered the doctrine of res judicata inapplicable. Id. A new hearing was held on January 15, 2002, and, in a decision dated February 15, 2002, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id, Plaintiff requested a review and, on March 13, 2003, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. Tr. 752.

Subsequently, Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. On September 6, 2006, the Honorable Stanley R. Chesler issued a decision remanding the matter.*fn1 Id. However, Plaintiff appealed Judge Chesler's decision to the Third Circuit. On February 28, 2006, the Third Circuit remanded the case finding that because of the unusual circumstances of this case, the obesity listing that was in effect when the claim was first adjudicated in 1998 should be applied. Id.

Plaintiff appeared at a hearing in front of an ALJ, Paula Gerrety, on February 10, 2009, alleging disability as of December 20, 1989. In addition, Robert B. Sklaroff, MD, an impartial medical expert ("ME"), and Dr. Carolyn E. Rutherford, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), testified at the hearing. Id. On April 22, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision finding that: (1) Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of any listing which DIB covers; and (2) Plaintiff retained the residual function capacity to perform a range of light work. Tr. 749-763.

Subsequently, on December 18, 2009, Plaintiff filed the instant action seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. Specifically, in her brief, Plaintiff argues that:

(1) the ALJ erred when she found that Plaintiff did not meet the former listing for obesity-- 9.09A; (2) the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinion of Dr. Weiss who found that Plaintiff had an IQ below 70; (3) the ALJ failed to address the report of Dr. Zimmerman or the testimony of the vocational experts; and (4) that the ALJ failed to make a finding regarding Plaintiff's credibility.

B. Background

Plaintiff was born on October 24, 1947. Tr. 48. Plaintiff has an eighth grade education and was placed in special education classes for math and reading. Tr. 51. Before Plaintiff stopped working, she was employed as a cashier, stock person and a bus driver. Tr. 53,54, 62. Plaintiff testified that she had been fired from cashier jobs a number of times because of her inability to add, subtract, and generally keep proper account of the money. Tr. 52, 54, 56, 57 61. At a 2002 hearing, Plaintiff testified that she worked as a cashier at a truck stop for 16-18 months but quit after her boss accused her of stealing. Tr. 57. Plaintiff stopped working in 1989 and claims that she is, and has been, unable to maintain employment due to a combination of obesity, arthritis, and diminished mental capacity. Pl's Br. at 5.

C. Plaintiff's Physical Impairments

As of her date last insured, hospital records indicate that Plaintiff, who is 5' 2" tall, weighed between 300 and 320 lbs. Tr. 368-69. Plaintiff was admitted to the emergency room on several occasions in 1984 and 1985 where she was diagnosed with various ailments, including acute gastritis (Tr. 335), peptic ulcer disease ("PUD") (Tr. 336) and migraine headaches. Tr. 342, 348.

Dr. Stephen Ocken conducted a consultative examination of Plaintiff on August 22, 1985. Tr. 154-55. At that time, Plaintiff was 5'3" tall and weighed 253 pounds. Tr. 155. According to Dr. Ocken, x-rays performed on Plaintiff showed that "[t]he lumbosacral spine revealed no evidence of fracture and no significant degenerative changes. There was early degenerative arthritis of the right knee but no degenerative arthritis involving the patient's symptomatic left knee." Tr. 154. In addition, Dr. Ocken noted that "[b]ack examination revealed tenderness over the lumbosacral spine." Tr. 155. Further, Dr. Ocken explained, "[m]y impression is that the patient seems to have a lot of pain with little objective evidence of musculoskeletal disease. It is true that the patient does have early osteoarthritis of the right knee, however, the left knee on xray looks quite good. . . The patient does not have occult spina bifida. I am not sure if this can account for all of her lumbosacral pain." Tr. 155.

In August 1985, Dr. Marc Friedman conducted another consultative examination of Plaintiff. Tr. 161-163. Dr. Friedman's examination revealed that Plaintiff's lungs were clear and that her heart was normal. Tr. 162. Plaintiff had full range of motion in the cervical spine and that "[m]ovement in all directions can be done fully." Id. (emphasis in original). However, Dr. Friedman noted that while Plaintiff's range of motion in the lumbar spine revealed normal flexion, extension, and left lateral flexion, Plaintiff's right lateral flexion was reduced by 5 degrees. Tr. 162. In addition, Plaintiff's gait was normal and an examination of Plaintiff's knees demonstrated that they were normal except for "mild" swelling. Id. Importantly, Dr. Friedman diagnosed osteoarthritis of the lumbosacral spine and knees, of mild to moderate degree. Id. He also concluded that Plaintiff had no gross limitation of movement in the lower back or both knees, despite "mild" evidence of arthritis. Id.

In addition, in August 1985, Plaintiff had x-rays performed on her lumbosacral spine and her knees. Tr 163. The x-rays of Plaintiff's spine revealed "a spina bifida occulta defect in the first sacral segment, but there is no further evidence of congenital defects or of intrinsic bone disease." Id. In addition, the x-rays of Plaintiff's knees showed "[v]ery early degenerative change . . on the right characterized by osteophyte formation on the lateral aspect of the femoral condyle and tibial head as well as on the superior patellar articular surface. There is no evidence of degenerative change involving the left knee." Tr. 163.

Plaintiff was admitted to Warren Hospital for follow-up treatment throughout 1986. Tr. 480-85. Records reflect that Plaintiff continued to gain weight and suffered from edema secondary to obesity, but otherwise, the findings were generally normal. Id. In September 1987, Plaintiff weighed 300 pounds. Tr. 485. A January 1988 chest x-ray showed diffuse chronic lung changes without evidence of an active process. Id. Plaintiff underwent a pulmonary function test ("PFT") in February 1988 and the results were normal. Tr. 488. A December 1988 straight leg-raising test was negative and deep tendon reflexes were normal. Tr. 490.

Plaintiff was discharged from Warren Hospital in June 1989, after a four - day admission for pneumonia. Tr. 167-69; see Tr. 170-218. Examinations of Plaintiff throughout 1989 demonstrated no positive musculoskeletal findings. Tr. 367-69. On July 5, 1989, Plaintiff was advised to return to work. Tr.368. A clinical note, dated December 12, 1989, provided that Plaintiff suffered from bronchitis. Tr. 367. A subsequent examination revealed a normal chest, heart, and abdomen. Id. A neurological exam showed that Plaintiff was fully oriented and alert.

Id. A clinical note, dated December 22, 1989, reveals that Plaintiff had a urinary tract infection ("UTI"). Tr. 367. At that time, Plaintiff's weight was 321 lbs. Id. Clinical records from October 1990 and April 1991 show that Plaintiff had a viral syndrome and bronchitis. Tr. 366. Her weight at this time was 355 lbs. and 339 lbs. respectively. Id.

July 1994 clinical notes from Warren Hospital confirm that Plaintiff had an asthma exacerbation. Tr. 382-84. The record also demonstrates that Plaintiff had a subsequent asthma exacerbation in January 1995, which required hospitalization. Tr. 386-95. At that time, an examination showed good range of motion in all Plaintiff's extremities. Tr. 394. Plaintiff continued to see physicians for follow-up of her asthma and sleep apnea throughout 1995. Tr. 441-44, 450-51. She was admitted to the hospital in November 1995 for observation of her sleep apnea. Tr. 403-08; see Tr. 692-93. At that time, Plaintiff was said to have no other major medical problems. Tr. 404. She did, however, have migraine headaches in 1995. Tr. 412-14. Plaintiff was hospitalized in December 1995 for abdominal pain, and was diagnosed with an ulcer. Tr. 419-26. Plaintiff continued to receive treatment for various ailments, ...


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