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Sheila Benson v. Commissioner of Social Security

July 30, 2012


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


This lawsuit involves a denied application for disability benefits. In this Opinion, the Court determines whether to affirm, modify or reverse the decision of the Administrate Law Judge ("ALJ"). Plaintiff Sheila Benson ("Plaintiff", "Benson", or "claimant") argues that the ALJ deprived the plaintiff of a full and fair hearing, relied upon stale evidence, erroneously concluded that the plaintiff could perform her past relevant work and failed to adequately evaluate an expert's opinion. For the reasons stated below, the Court denies Plaintiff's appeal and the decision of the ALJ is AFFIRMED.


A. Factual Background

In this section, I provide an overview of Benson's medical history. More detailed descriptions of her medical and testimonial record are provided herein, where relevant.

Benson worked as an elementary school teacher in Margate City, New Jersey from 1992 to 2003. In July 2000, Dr. Courtland Schmidt first diagnosed Plaintiff with advanced glaucoma in her left eye. Administrative Record ("AR") at 249. Following her eye-related diagnosis, Benson also developed hypertension and depression. AR at 42. Dr. Schmidt performed Plaintiff's first eye surgery on August 9, 2000, and performed additional procedures in May 2001 and July 2001. AR at 234 - 236. Benson continued to receive treatment from Dr. Schmidt until 2004.

In 2004, she relocated to Hillsborough, New Jersey, where she entered the care of Dr. Omar Mobin-Uddin for her glaucoma. AR at 411. Plaintiff also began a part-time job at a Kohl's department store. She chose not to seek a teaching position at that time, due to her visual, bending and lifting difficulties. However, the severity of her difficulties soon resulted in her departure from Kohl's and she alleges in her disability application that she officially became disabled on January 2, 2005. Approximately a year later, in April 2006, Dr. Janice A. Hallit became the first physician to prescribe stress and depression medication to Benson. AR at 321.

Plaintiff underwent a number of evaluations and operations in the latter half of 2007. In an adult function report dated July 5, 2007, Benson indicated that she had to reduce her leisurely activities due to the aggravation of her physical and mental ailments. AR at 153. On August 14, 2007, Dr. Anna Marie Resnikoff examined Plaintiff's functional ability. Resnikoff noted that Benson had at least low average intelligence, had borderline organization and retrieval skills of learned material and had average vocabulary skills and conceptual understanding. AR at 250 -253. In short, Resinkoff diagnosed Plaintiff with concurrent adjustment disorder and depressed and anxious mood. She, further, assigned Benson a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 75-85, which is equivalent to that of a highly-functional person. AR at 12.

Roughly a month later, in July 2007, State Agency Physician Dr. Carol Bruskin evaluated Benson's mental impairment under the 12.04 - Affective Disorders - and 12.06 - Anxiety Related Disorders rubric. Dr. Bruskin also diagnosed Benson with an adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood. These disorders, Dr. Bruskin concluded, caused Benson to suffer a mild restriction of daily living activities, mild difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration. AR at 271. However, the doctor concluded that Plaintiff did not experience any decompensation episodes. With respect to Benson's Mental Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), Dr. Bruskin determined that Plaintiff's mental impairment resulted in a moderate limitation to: 1) understand and remember detailed instructions, 2) carry out detailed instructions, 3) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, 4) accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, 5) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting and travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation. AR at 275. Furthermore, the Plaintiff could understand, remember and execute responsibilities associated with the work environment, relate to others, accept criticism from authority, cope with stress and change with mild to moderate interference from psychiatric symptoms. AR at 277. Overall, Dr. Bruskin described the examination as normal. AR at 277.

At the request of the Division of Disability Determination Services, Dr. John M. Boozan performed a consultative examination on October 3, 2007. He noted the need for left cataract surgery and that Benson had well controlled glaucoma in both eyes. AR at 295. Following this examination, an October 18, 2007 physical RFC assessment yielded a result of no exertional limitations due to the impairment of her eyes. The assessor determined that Benson's limitations precluded her from working at unprotected heights but that she could handle both large and small objects and could avoid the normal hazards of the workplace. AR at 304. Dr. Mobin-Uddin completed cataract surgeries on Benson's eye in November 2007. AR at 361.

In 2008, Dr. Mobin-Uddin recommended Plaintiff to receive another type of surgery from Dr. John Park-corneal transplant. Over the next year and a half she received two surgeries from Dr. Park. AR at 441. Following these surgeries, that took place on October 1, 2008, AR at 372, and January 7, 2009, id. at 366, Benson was again evaluated by Dr. Park. He states in his September 14, 2010 report that, as of his September 9, 2010 evaluation of her, the cornea transplant appeared to be failing and that "she was describing fluctuating left ocular burning and pain with varying intensity." AR at 441. According to Dr. Park, her left visual acuity, at that time, was 20/300 with left exotropia. Id. In his view, her poor vision made it "very difficult [for her] to engage in any activity or work in a meaningful fashion." Id. He found her claims of pain to be consistent with those of most persons experiencing failed corneal transplant. Id.

B. Procedural Background

Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability benefits on June 4, 2007. She alleged an inability to work due to glaucoma, hypertension and depression. Though a claims adjudicator found that Benson's moderate psychiatric impairment precluded her from returning to teaching, the adjudicator concluded that Rule 204.00 compelled a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404 App. 2 Rule 204.00 (stating that an impairment that does not preclude heavy work generally is sufficient for a finding of not disabled.) Thus, the adjudicator denied the claim on October 18, 2007.

Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the claim adjudicator's decision, and updated her disability form with additional information about her medical conditions. Disability Determination Services initially affirmed the denial on April 1, 2008. Plaintiff then requested a hearing on May 29, 2008 and submitted another updated form in support. The Commissioner granted her request and scheduled the hearing for September 17, 2009. Following the hearing, the ALJ found that Benson was not disabled and could perform her past relevant work through March 31, 2009, the date last insured. He found that Benson did not engage in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of January 2, 2005, her left-eye blindness was a severe impairment and her depression was a non-severe impairment. However, he also found that she had the RFC to perform exertional demands of light work with limitations and could perform her past relevant work.

Plaintiff then successfully appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. In a June 2010 decision, the Council vacated and remanded the case because the ALJ did not consider Dr. Carol Bruskin's opinion while evaluating plaintiff's mental state and because the ALJ should have evaluated the claimant's mental impairment using the procedure set out in 20 CFR 404.1520a. See AR at 103. With respect to Dr. Bruskin's report, the council held that the ALJ failed to explain the weight he assigned to her opinion. Because Dr. Bruskin is a State agency physician, the ALJ was required to address her opinion although he was not bound to adopt it. Id. As for the ALJ's severity determination, the Appeals Council held that the ALJ did "not address the "B" or "C" criteria ratings [found in 20 C.F.R. 404.1520a] or provide any of the requisite rationale needed to evaluate the severity of the claimant's mental impairment." Id. Having remanded for these reasons, the council further instructed the ALJ to give additional consideration to his RFC determination and, "[i]f warranted[,] . . . obtain evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base .." Id. at 104.

On remand, a record hearing was set for October 12, 2010. In advance of the rehearing, Plaintiff submitted additional documentation from Dr. John C. Park describing her injuries and his assessment of her condition. After further questioning Benson about her depression and recent left-eye developments, the ALJ affirmed his previous decision on the same grounds in a decision dated October 14, 2010. In particular, he determined that the psychological evidence failed to establish anything greater than a minimal effect on her ability to perform basic work activities. He, further, addressed the deficiencies highlighted by the Appeals Council's remand. Benson, again, appealed but, this time, the Appeals Council denied her request for review on June 17, 2010. Thereafter, Plaintiff appealed to this Court.

C. ALJ's Opinion

In denying Benson's re-application for disability benefits in his October 14, 2010 opinion, the ALJ set followed the five step procedure for determining whether an individual is disabled for the purposes of the Social Security Act. He then made six findings:

(1) The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on ...

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