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Ochmanski v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 28, 2019

Edward OCHMANSKI, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the appeal of Plaintiff Edward Ochmanski (Doc. No. 1) seeking review of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision denying Plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. For the reasons below, the Court AFFIRMS the ALJ's decision denying benefits.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         A. Procedural and Plaintiff's History

         Plaintiff Edward Ochmanski is a 37-year-old man who lives in New Jersey with his father and fiancé. (R. at 48, 82.) He is about six feet tall and weighs about 285 pounds. (R. at 26.) Plaintiff splits custody of his two sons, ages eight and thirteen. (R. at 49.) He has past relevant work as a police officer and dispatcher. (R. at 32, 70.)

         On January 13, 2015, Plaintiff filed an initial claim for disability based on alcoholism, depression, and degenerative joint disease. (R. at 82.) Plaintiff alleged disability as of January 2, 2013. (R. at 82.) That claim was denied initially on May 15, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on August 15, 2014. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing, which was held on August 28, 2014. (R. at 20.) The ALJ issued a decision on March 15, 2017, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 20- 34.) This appeal followed for review of that decision. (Doc. No. 1.)

         B. ALJ Hearing and Medical Evidence

         In finding Plaintiff not disabled, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's relevant medical history and examinations. The following briefly notes the relevant medical evaluations and hearing testimony pertinent to the ALJ's decision and Plaintiff's appeal. These evaluations include those done by Dr. Matthew Austin, Plaintiff's orthopedic surgeon, and an individual at RA Pain, where Plaintiff received pain management services.

         1. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified that around the time he stopped working in 2011 to seek treatment for alcohol abuse, he noticed pain in his right hip. (R. at 54.) Plaintiff ultimately underwent a total right hip replacement, performed by Dr. Sharkey, but because that surgery was not successful, Plaintiff required a right total hip revision surgery, which Dr. Austin performed on August 7, 2013. (R. at 54-55; see also R. at 25.) At the hearing, Plaintiff detailed various issues as a result of his hip pain and surgery, including: swelling, difficulty sitting comfortably, corresponding left hip pain and the potential need for left hip replacement, difficulty walking on uneven surfaces and long distances, throbbing, pain, and numbness, among other similar issues. (E.g., R. at 55- 56, 58-64.)

         Plaintiff also detailed his issues with alcohol abuse and mental impairments. Plaintiff testified, for example, that he initially stopped drinking in 2013, but “fell off the wagon” for a brief period in 2015. (R. at 50-51.) According to Plaintiff, he has been sober since June 25, 2015. (R. at 50.) When asked if he has trouble thinking, concentrating, and remembering in an ordinary day, Plaintiff replied that his mind is “all over the place.” (R. at 64.) He also noted that he takes Focalin for ADHD, among other medications for his depression and anxiety. (R. at 52.) Plaintiff explained that he notices a “huge difference” when he takes his medicine, which has his depression “controlled at this time.” (R. at 53-54.)

         2. Dr. Austin

         Shortly after performing Plaintiff's right hip revision surgery in August 2013, Dr. Austin examined Plaintiff in September and October 2013. (R. at 867-870.) In the progress notes from October 2013, Dr. Austin noted that Plaintiff could do no more than sedentary work activity, could only do activities of daily living, and noted that he would support Plaintiff's application for long-term disability. (R. at 867; see also R. at 869.) On July 11, 2014, Dr. Austin filled out a form regarding Plaintiff's ability to walk, among other things, although it does not appear from the record that Dr. Austin examined Plaintiff on this date. (R. at 862-864, 884.)

         On February 11, 2014, over a year after Dr. Austin last examined Plaintiff in October 2013, (R. at 884), Dr. Austin completed a medical report detailing Plaintiff's limitations. (R. at 883-886.) Specifically, Dr. Austin opined that Plaintiff could lift only one to five pounds, could stand and walk less than two hours per day, could sit less than six hours per day, and had a limited ability to push and/or pull. (R. at 885.) He also noted that Plaintiff should only perform his activities of daily living. (R. at 885.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ gave Dr. Austin's opinions “partial weight” because his 2013 opinions were shortly after Plaintiff's hip surgery, no evidence existed that they were intended to be permanent, and Plaintiff's examinations and daily activities indicated that Dr. Austin's findings were overly restrictive. (R. at 30.)

         3. RA Pain

         Plaintiff also received treatment from pain specialists at RA Pain. (R. at 1031-1033.) In a three-page report unaccompanied by written explanations and signed by a person with an illegible signature, an individual at RA Pain, potentially a doctor or a physician's assistant, checked boxes and circled options indicating that Plaintiff could sit, walk, and stand for two hours per day; frequently lift up to five pounds; occasionally lift between six and ten pounds but never more; could not use his feet for repetitive movements; and could not bend, stoop, squat, crawl, or climb. (R. at 1031.) The report's unidentified author also checked boxes restricting Plaintiff from activities involving unprotected heights, being around moving machinery, driving automotive equipment, and having exposure to marked changes in temperature, humidity, dust, fumes, and gases. (R. at 1031.) Finally, the report included a form in which the author circled options indicating the amount of pain Plaintiff experiences. (R. at 1032-1033.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ assigned these opinions “little weight” because the author's signature is illegible, a physician's assistant is not considered an “acceptable medical source, ” and the ...


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