United States District Court, D. New Jersey
JOSE L. LINARES, District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court upon the appeal of Alexander Walton ("Plaintiff") from the final determination by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William Musseman upholding the final decision of the Commissioner denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). After reviewing the submissions of both parties, the arguments presented at the June 2, 2015 hearing, and for the following reasons, the final decision of the Commissioner is hereby affirmed.
A. Procedural History
Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability and Social Security Insurance benefits, alleging disability since February 16, 2012. (Pl. Br. at 1). Plaintiff's claim for benefits was initially denied on July 24, 2012. (R. at 11). He subsequently filed a hearing request and on January 17, 2013 a hearing was held before the ALJ. Id . At the hearing, the ALJ determined that, based on Plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of Vocational Expert ("VE") Dennis Duffin, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and that therefore Plaintiff was not disabled. Id . The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ decision on December 18, 2013. (R. at 1). Plaintiff then filed a Local Rule 9.2 brief in this Court contesting the ALJ's decision. (Pl. Br. at 2).
B. Factual History
1. Plaintiff's Background
Plaintiff alleges disability due to pain in his right hip, his right and left knees, a heart murmur, anxiety and depression. (Pl. Br. at 2). Plaintiff is currently thirty years old and has a GED and vocational training in carpentry. (Def. Br. at 2). He has worked as a military supply clerk, a janitor, and a construction laborer. Id. at 3. He was enlisted in the U.S. Army from July 2010 through October 26, 2012. Id. at 3.
1. Medical Evidence
Plaintiff's history of bilateral knee pain dates back to 2008. Id . He has undergone various treatments, including usage of cream, pulse radiofrequency, and physical therapy, none of which have proved very successful. Id . Although MRIs in March 2012 revealed a small tear in his right discoid meniscus and associated possible posterior parameniscal cyst, x-rays in April 2012 revealed "normal knees" with no evidence of fracture, dislocation, joint effusion, significant arthritic change, or other abnormality. Id. at 4. Furthermore, Plaintiff demonstrated normal coordination and motor strength during physical examinations, although he did have an abnormal gait and stance. Id. at 4. He was diagnosed with bilateral patellofemoral syndrome in 2011, which affected high-impact and weight-bearing activities, but not his daily activities. Id . Plaintiff has also received treatment for bilateral foot and plantar fasciitis pain, and ingrown toenails. Id . However, he denied the need for surgery or use of an assistive device, shoe inserts, or orthotics. Id. at 5. The U.S. Army Physical Evaluation Board issued a formal decision finding that Plaintiff had a 20% disability due to his chronic bilateral patellar tendinitis/tendinopathy but his other medical conditions, including his foot problems, met medical retention standards. Id. at 5.
Plaintiff also alleges mental health impairment. Id. at 6. However, medical examiners differed in their opinions of Plaintiff's mental functioning. The U.S. Physical Evaluation Board, based on the findings of Army psychiatrist Brian Butler, M.D., found that Plaintiff's adjustment disorder with depressed mood met medical retention standards. Id. at 7. Daniel Pitzer, a licensed clinical social worker who completed an RFC assessment on Plaintiff's behalf, found that Plaintiff had marked limited in several categories of mental work-related functioning. Id. at 7. Meanwhile, state agency mental health consultant James Wanstrath, Ph.D., reviewed the record and found that Plaintiff, at most, had moderate limitations in some mental work-related functioning. Id. at 7-8. Dr. Victor Neufeld, following a consultative psychological evaluation ordered by the state agency, found that Plaintiff was moderately impaired in understanding and recalling instructions, markedly impaired in social interaction, and mildly to moderately impaired with respect to persistence and pace. Id. at 8. Dr. Brad Marten, in another consultative psychological examination, found that, overall, Plaintiff exhibited a stable level of psychosocial functioning, with the ability to attend to simple instructions and directions in a work setting. Id. at 8.
Plaintiff himself told his counselor at Evans Army Community Hospital between June 2011 and April 2012 that he continued to walk despite his pain since he did not have a car, that he planned to go to the gym on his days off, that he had a close friend since he was a kid, that he planned to go to college, that he talked to and had the support of his mother, that he spent the holidays relaxing with friends, and that he had a girlfriend and that he was looking forward to a trip to California to visit her family. Id. at 6.
C. VE's Testimony
The ALJ first asked the VE to assume a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's age and educational background, limited to light exertional level with a sit-stand option, occasional squatting and kneeling, no ladders or scaffolds, no foot or leg controls, occasional dealing with the general public on a face to face basis and no complex tasks, defined as a Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) level of 2 or less. (R. at 46). The VE testified that an individual with those limitations would be able to work as a survey worker or scale attendant, both jobs with skill levels of 2 and light occupations or a call out operator, also ...