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Bell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 22, 2015



JOSE L. LINARES, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon the appeal of Christine Bell ("Plaintiff") from the final determination by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Richard De Steno upholding the final decision of the Commissioner denying in part Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), and resolves this matter on the parties' briefs pursuant to Local Civil Rule 9.1(f). After reviewing the submissions of both parties, for the following reasons, the final decisions of the Commissioner are affirmed.


A. Procedural History

On April 8, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability beginning February 20, 2010. (R. at 133). The application was denied by the Commissioner on August 21, 2010, and upon reconsideration on August 18, 2011. (R. at 86, 94). A request for a hearing was filed and subsequently held on July 17, 2012. (R. at 97, 107). On August 10, 2012, Administrative Law Judge Richard De Steno issued an opinion finding Plaintiff disabled as of February 24, 2012, but not earlier as claimed in Plaintiff's initial application. (R. at 21). Plaintiff filed a request to the Appeals Council for review which was denied on June 17, 2014. (R. at 1). Plaintiff then commenced the instant action.

Factual History

1. Plaintiff's Testimony

At the time of her initial application, Plaintiff was fifty-three years old. She last worked as a bus attendant on school buses until she was laid off in 2002. (R. at 22, 42). Plaintiff claims that she can no longer work because she has disabilities involving her right knee as well as her back. (R. at 43). She cannot bend her leg at night, and at times her back hurts such that she cannot walk at all. (R. at 43). She can sit for a half-hour before her legs cramp, as well as stand for a half-hour to forty-five minutes. (R. at 44). She does not know how much weight she can carry. (R. at 44). Her job as a bus attendant was full time, and required that she help a small child in a wheelchair. (R. at 41, 46). Other than that she did not do any lifting or carrying, and occasionally had to stand to keep the children in line. (R. at 42).

During the day, Plaintiff spends most of her time sitting in the house or back yard. (R. at 45). She has some difficulty getting dressed, and she cooks and cleans on occasion. (R. at 44-45). She can lift a gallon of milk with two hands. (R. at 47). She feels depressed, and has difficulty sleeping due to nightmares. (R. at 43-44). She has a driver's license but does not go anywhere by herself. (R. at 45).

2. Medical Evidence

On June 16, 2010, Dr. Justin Fernando examined Plaintiff at the request of the Administration. (R. at 196). Plaintiff complained of arthritis, swelling, high blood pressure, depression, sleep disorder, poor eating habits and high cholesterol levels. (R. at 196). She complained of pain in her joints, and claimed her greatest pain was in the weight bearing areas of the lower back, knees and ankles. (R. at 196). This pain gives her difficulty with weight bearing, walking, or standing for any length of time. (R. at 196). She claimed she could not stand continuously for more than a few minutes. (R. at 196). Dr. Fernando observed that her gait was normal, and she did not need help changing for the exam. (R. at 197). He found that she had a slightly limited range of motion in her knees, but had normal range of motion in all other joints. (R. at 197-198). Her X-rays also appeared normal. (R. at 198).

On June 20, 2010, Dr. Paul Fulford examined Plaintiff, whose chief complaints at the time were loss of balance, dizziness and high blood pressure. (R. at 203-204). She complained of auditory hallucinations for three months prior to the examination. (R. at 205). She also complained of visual hallucinations that she likened to shadows, and tactile hallucinations that awaken her from sleep. (R. at 205). Dr. Fulford stated that Plaintiff's short term auditory recall memory was mildly impaired, her concentration appeared good, and calculation ability as well as her judgment appeared fair. (R. at 205). He also noted that "no bizarre or inappropriate qualities were noted, " her speech was clear and goal oriented, and that her mental control was good. (R. at 204). Dr. Fulford diagnosed Plaintiff with Dysthymic disorder, and assigned her a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 65. (R. at 205).

On September 14, 2010, Plaintiff admitted herself to the emergency department at University Hospital with complaints of a backache. (R. at 213). She was given a prescription for Naproxen and an injection of Toradol. (R. at 214). The only diagnosis recorded was backache. (R. at 215).

Dr. Thomas Francis of Rhomur Medical Services' records dated between October and December of 2010 reflect uncontrolled hypertension as well as marijuana abuse attributed to her depression. (R. at 217-226). Dr. Francis also had Plaintiff undergo an EKG on October 1, 2010. R. at 239. The findings of the EKG were termed "abnormal" as Plaintiff had left ventricular hypertrophy as well as sinus bradyardia. (R. at 240). Dr. Francis ordered an X-ray of Plaintiff's lumbar spine on October 28, 2010, which was "unremarkable", with no abnormalities. (R. at 219).

Later, Dr. Stacy Mevs ordered an X-ray dated February 14, 2011 which showed mild degenerative change in the right knee. (R. at 243). Of note however is that according to the report these X-rays were not compared to the previous images ordered by Dr. Fernando or any other images. (R. at 243).

On July 13, 2011, Dr. Rahel Eyassu examined Plaintiff at the request of the administration. (R. at 227). Plaintiff complained of arthritis in her ankle and both knees, and stated that she had difficulty walking. (R. at 227). Dr. Eyassu found that the plaintiff had a limping gait, favoring her right knee. (R. at 227). Plaintiff was diagnosed ...

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