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McLaughlin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 31, 2019




         This matter comes before the Court upon Michael McLaughlin's ("Plaintiff) appeal from the final decision of Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"), denying Plaintiffs application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The Court has jurisdiction to review this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and reaches its decision without oral argument pursuant to Local Civil Rule 78.1. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History[1]

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability on June 10, 2013, alleging an onset date beginning on October 17, 2012. (AR 70-71.) Plaintiffs claim was denied initially on September 25, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on January 30, 2014. (Id. at 70-77, 80-88.) The ALJ conducted an administrative hearing on May 24, 2016, following which the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 9-19, 24-68.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on September 15, 2017. (Id. at 1-4.) On November 19, 2017, Plaintiff filed an appeal to the District Court of New Jersey. (ECF No. 1.) The Clerk issued a summons on November 20, 2017 (ECF No. 4), which Plaintiff returned executed on March 14, 2018 (ECF No. 6). Defendant filed the administrative record on April 10, 2018. (ECF No. 10.) This case was reassigned to Chief Judge Jose L. Linares on April 13, 2018. (ECF No. 11.) Plaintiff filed his moving brief on November 26, 2018, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 9.1. (ECF No. 17.) The Commissioner filed opposition on December 7, 2018 (ECF No. 18), and Plaintiff did not reply. On March 4, 2019, this case was reassigned to the Undersigned for all further proceedings. (ECF No. 19.)

         B. Factual History

         Plaintiff is a fifty-one year-old male born on July 20, 1967. (AR 145.) He holds a high school diploma, and served twenty-three years on the New York City police force in Staten Island, primarily as a patrol officer. (Id. at 35-36.) Plaintiff filed his initial disability claim based on: "cervical fusion and discectomy," "cervical herniated disc, radiculopathy," "left shoulder impingement, status post surgery," and "lumbar bulging disc." (Id. at 70, 80.)

         Plaintiffs medical problems began after he suffered a head-on collision while driving a patrol car on duty as a police officer in 2005, causing him to sustain an injury to his spine. (Id. at 352.) He underwent surgery in August of 2005 with Dr. Benjamin, and after extensive rehabilitative therapy, returned to the police force on light duty. (Id. at 315, 352, 367.) In 2010, Plaintiff "f[ell] down the stairs while on duty and reinjured his cervical and lumbar spine" and left shoulder. (Id.) He then underwent left shoulder surgery in 2010 with Dr. Reilly. (Id. at 315.) In 2015, Plaintiff had additional cervical spinal surgery at New York University Hospital. (Id. at 354.)

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he resides in New Jersey with his girlfriend and two teenage daughters. (Id. at 33.) He testified that he has a driver's license, but cannot drive more than twenty-five miles at a time. (Id. at 34.) Plaintiff testified that he served as a police officer in Staten Island, and that after his injury, he was put on "restricted duty" and tasked with light desk work around the station house. (Id. at 35-36.) He testified that while he desired to return to full duty, he was not permitted to do so. (Id. at 37.) Plaintiff testified that he has not looked for any other work since being put on disability retirement "because of all the medical issues [he has] had" and because of his "chronic pain." (Id. at 41-42.)

         Plaintiff testified that for pain, he takes Tramadol, Zanaflex, Mobic, and Flexeril. (Id. at 42.) He further testified that he cannot walk longer than twenty minutes at a time without falling, and that he can only sit for thirty minutes at a time because "[his] legs go numb." (Id. at 43-44.) Plaintiff stated that he has pain in his arms, neck, lower back, and shoulder. (Id. at 44.) Plaintiff has been treated with epidural and steroid injections, which have provided some relief. (Id. at 46.)

         According to Plaintiff, he is able to do light housework such as sweeping the floor or cooking for himself. (Id. at 48.) Plaintiff testified that he is able to lift a gallon of milk, but tries not to lift anything heavier. (Id. at 52.) Plaintiff also testified that he suffers pounding headaches that he believes are triggered by neck pain from poor sleep quality. (Id. at 53-54.) Plaintiff stated that his medications make him very tired, and that "[he] is not able to stay up during an eight hour period." (Id. at 55.)

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         On June 13, 2016, the ALJ rendered a decision. (Id. at 9-19.) The ALJ set forth the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential process for determining whether an individual is disabled. (Id. at 9-11.) At step one of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since October 17, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. (Id. at 11.) At step two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of chronic cervical/lumbosacral radiculopathy; chronic traumatic cervical myeloradiculopathy; and multilevel cervical disc herniations. (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff s impairments, or combination of impairments, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 11-12.) The ALJ next found that Plaintiff possessed the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, except that Plaintiff can "lift/carry up to [ten] pounds"; "stand/walk [two] hours in an [eight] hour workday but needs the opportunity to sit for [five] minutes after [thirty] minutes of standing/walking"; "sit [six] hours in an [eight]-hour workday but needs the opportunity to stand for [five] minutes after [thirty] minutes of sitting, or is limited to a job that is posrurally immaterial." (Id. at 12.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff can "occasionally climb ramps/stairs, but never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds," "can frequently balance, kneel, crouch and crawl," and "can occasionally stoop, but never reach overhead," and that Plaintiff can "frequently handle and finger." (Id.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 18.) At step five, considering Plaintiffs age, education, and work experience, and relying on the testimony of the vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ found that Plaintiff is able to perform the requirements of representative occupations available in significant numbers in the national economy, such as "video surveillance monitor," "telemarketer," and "information aide." (Id. at 18-19.) The ALJ, accordingly, found that Plaintiff has not been under a disability from October 17, 2012, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 19.)

         II. L ...

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