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Siragusa v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 1, 2014



KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Gail Siragusa brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits ("SSDI"). Siragusa asserts that the decision was not based on substantial evidence. Comp'. (Docket No. 1). For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Background

Siragusa seeks SSDI for a period of disability from September 1, 2008 to October 4, 2011. Record (Docket No. 5-2) at 17. Administrative Law Judge ("AW") Richard L. De Steno denied Siragusa's claim in a decision dated October 4, 2011. R 1. Through her attorney, Gabriel Hermann, Siragusa appealed the decision to the Appeals Council on December 2, 2011. Id. at 11. In a letter dated April 23, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the appeal, making the ALJ's decision the "final decision" of the Commissioner.[1] Id. at 1.

Siragusa appeals the decision of the Commissioner. She asserts that the ALJ did not properly consider the evidence of her disability, based on two claims of error: (1) that the ALJ failed to properly analyze her credibility, including corroborating evidence; and (2) that he did not give sufficient weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Chen. Pl. Br. (Docket No. 10-1) at 2.

II. Standard of Review

As to legal issues, this Court's review is plenary. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). As to the factual findings of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), however, this Court is directed "only to determine whether the administrative record contains substantial evidence supporting the findings." Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). 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 .; accord Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

[I]n evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings... leniency should be shown in establishing the claimant's disability, and... the Secretary's responsibility to rebut it should be strictly construed. Due regard for the beneficent purposes of the legislation requires that a more tolerant standard be used in this administrative proceeding than is applicable in a typical suit in a court of record where the adversary system prevails.

Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal citations and quotations omitted). When there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, this Court must abide by them. See Jones, 364 F.3d at 503 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

III. Evidence Considered by the ALJ

ALJ De Steno set forth the following evidence in his decision (consistent with the underlying exhibits unless otherwise noted).[2]

A. Medical Evidence

1. Heart

A September 2008 progress note from Dr. David Israelowitz [Siragusa's General Practitioner at New Jersey Physicians LLC] indicated that Siragusa was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse, which was stable and asymptomatic. R 18 (citing Exs. 1F, 5F, 9F).

2. Back Pain

A June 2009 progress note [from Dr. Chen at New Jersey Physicians LLC] indicated that Siragusa had low back pain, which began 5 years prior and had recently become worse. R 18 (citing Exs. 5F, 9F). She asserted that her pain was at worst a seven on a ten point scale. Id. The pain was allegedly aggravated by bending down and prolonged sitting, and was relieved by standing up. Id. Weakness, an associated symptom, was also noted. Id. The examination showed mild lumbar paraspinal tenderness and paraspinal spasms, negative straight leg raising test, normal motor strength, 2 reflexes and intact sensory examination. X-rays showed degenerative disc disease at L5-S1. Id.

[Another progress note from Dr. Chen in July 2009 reported that Siragusa had been going to physical therapy which helped with her pain, but that she continued to have pain and had had a "flare up" the week prior. R 198-200.]

A July 2009 MRI of the lumbar spine showed multilevel degenerative disc space disease, most pronounced at L4-5 and L5-S1. At L5-S1, a concentric disc bulge contacted the right L5 nerve root in the neural foramen. R 18 (citing Exs. 5F, 9F).

A September 2009 note [from Dr. Chen] indicated that Siragusa was seen for low back pain with radiation down the right thigh. Id. She reported that her pain was worsening and rated it as a 5 out of 10. Physical therapy helped somewhat, but the pain came back. An MRI of the lumbar spine showed disc bulges at L4-5 and L5-S1 with contact on the right L5 nerve root. R 18-19. The examination showed no midline back tenderness to palpation, normal reflexes in the bilateral lower extremities, negative straight leg raise bilaterally, and no pain with dorsiflexion of toes. Siragusa "failed" conservative treatment, including physical therapy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. R 19. Therefore, an epidural injection was recommended. Id. Siragusa received epidural steroid injections in October 2009. Id. (citing Ex. 9F).

In a November 2009 progress note [from Dr. Chen], Siragusa reported a 50 percent pain reduction after receiving the steroid injections. R 19. She asserted that her pain was a 3 out of 10. She complained of some numbness and weakness in her right leg, and also complained a fatigue and ...

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