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OZIER v. BARNHART

August 10, 2004.

WILLIE B. OZIER, Plaintiff,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MARTIN ASHMAN, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Willie B. Ozier ("Plaintiff"), brings this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), who denied his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB")*fn1 and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI")*fn2 under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are the parties' motions for summary judgment. Both parties have consented to have this Court conduct any and all proceedings in this case including the entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Local R. 73.1(a). For the reasons set forth below, the Court remands the cause for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. I. Procedural History

  In July of 2001, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, claiming disability due to sarcoidosis*fn3 since November 10, 2000. (R. at 154, 324.) After his application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration (R. at 120-29), Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), (R. at 130). A hearing before the ALJ took place on August 15, 2002, (R. at 47), where Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, a medical expert, and a vocational expert testified. (R. at 49-117.) On October 22, 2002, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. at 4, 46.) This became the final decision of the Commissioner on March 14, 2003, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 4-5.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.

  II. Background

  A. Facts and Medical History

  Plaintiff was born on October 17, 1967, and was 35 years old when the ALJ issued his decision. (R. at 47, 154.) He completed the eleventh grade and has vocational training in security work. (R. at 172.) His past work experience includes jobs as security guard, delivery van driver, fish packer, laborer, forklift driver, shoe retailer, package handler and warehouseman. (R. at 175.) Plaintiff was working as a fish packer in a warehouse before he was terminated in November 2000. (R. at 166-67.) Plaintiff initially visited with Dr. Blasej Lojewski on July 15, 1999. (R. at 208.) There were two additional visits between this initial check-up and August 19, 1999. (R. at 206-07.) On November 28, 1999, Plaintiff was admitted into the hospital and diagnosed with pneumonia. (R. at 213.) Chest x-rays taken during this hospitalization showed bilateral interstitial*fn4 infiltrate*fn5 most prominent in the upper lobes with impressions of hilar*fn6 and mediastinal*fn7 lymphadenopathy,*fn8 abnormalities suggesting sarcoidosis. (R. at 278-80). Additional chest x-rays performed on December 1, 1999 and May 13, 2000 found that the overall appearance of Plaintiff's chest had not significantly changed since the initial exam, and again stated that sarcoidosis should be considered. (R. at 276-77.) Dr. Lojewski re-examined him six more times between December 2000 and June 2001. (R. at 282-88.) On June 23, 2001, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for midsternum chest pain and difficulty swallowing. (R. at 294.) An x-ray of Plaintiff's chest conducted on June 14, 2001, showed no change since May 2000. (R. at 276.) A CT scan of the thorax was described as compatible with sarcoidosis. (R. at 219, 260.) Dr. Lojewski examined Plaintiff on six more occasions during the remainder of 2001. (R. at 289, 291). On August 13, 2001, a biopsy upon a skin lesion on Plaintiff's nose was conducted at Dr. Lojewski's request. (R. at 218.) Tests on the specimen found it consistent with sarcoidosis. (Id.) Plaintiff continued treating with Dr. Lojewski through the beginning of 2002. (R. at 290). His treatment consisted primarily of Prednisone, a steroid and anti-inflammatory. (R. at 81, 248.)

  On October 24, 2001, Plaintiff underwent a physical exam by Dr. Peter Biale at the request of the Commissioner. (R. at 242.) Plaintiff stated during this examination that after November 2000 he became sick frequently and experienced severe shortness of breath with minor exertion, lower back pain especially when he bent, sat, or stood for prolonged periods of time, or when he tried to lift twenty to thirty pounds. (Id.) He also stated that he suffered occasional cramping in his hands. (Id.) Dr. Biale reported that Plaintiff appeared to be a person in no acute distress, well-nourished, and cooperative. (R. at 243.) Dr. Biale noted rhonchi*fn9 and wheezing, as well as rapid breathing that limited Plaintiff's ability to climb one flight of stairs or walk one block. (R. at 245.) He noted this shortness of breath as consistent with sarcoidosis. (Id.) The remainder of the exam reported normal results — the lumbosacral spine revealed a full range of motion, and Plaintiff showed normal grip strength. (R. at 244-45.)

  On November 5, 2001, Dr. Frank Jimenez reviewed Plaintiff's medical records for the State Disability Determination Agency ("State Agency") and completed a Residual Functional Capacity Assessment ("RFC"). He found that despite sarcoidosis and cramps in his hands, Plaintiff could perform medium level work*fn10 with no postural limitations.*fn11 (R. at 225-32.) On March 5, 2002, State Agency physician Dr. Boyd McCracken reviewed this assessment and affirmed it as written. (R. at 232.)

  On March 2, 2002, treating physician Dr. Lojewski prepared a respiratory report form for the State Agency. (R. at 246-54.) He reported a diagnosis of sarcoidosis and a left shoulder sprain. (R. at 247.) He noted Plaintiff was experiencing shortness of breath on exertion, (R. at 248), along with wheezes, rhonchi and prolonged expiration, (R. at 247). Dr. Lojewski stated that Plaintiff could not work, and that shortness of breath limited his daily activities. (R. at 248.) He also noted that Plaintiff's condition was worsening despite treatment. (Id.) In addition to this report, Dr. Lojewski submitted a pulmonary function test performed on December 27, 2001. (R. at 249.) Initial values were nearly normal, however, forced expiration flow and maximal voluntary ventilation were substantially reduced, consistent with sarcoidosis and complaints of frequent fatigue and shortness of breath. (R. at 249, 313-14.)

  Plaintiff continued to see Dr. Lojewski in 2002. (R. at 292-93.) X-rays of Plaintiff's left shoulder on March 4, 2002 showed mild degenerative changes and small cystic changes of his AC joint. (R. at 274.) On June 13, 2002, Dr. Lojewski filled out a physical capacities assessment form for Plaintiff's disability claim. (R. at 272-73.) He noted that Plaintiff could not work in jobs requiring minimal lifting, indicated Plaintiff's residual capacity to stand and/or walk in a work setting was two hours or less, and that Plaintiff could sit for a period of four hours during a given workday. (R. at 272.) He indicated that Plaintiff had "moderate" restrictions on balancing, kneeling, squatting, handling, feeling, and seeing, and that he had "severe" restrictions on climbing, bending, pushing, pulling and reaching. (Id.) The doctor wrote that shortness of breath caused by sarcoidosis and other system involvement limited Plaintiff's ability to work and that the disability was permanent. (R. at 273.)

  In September 2002, after the hearing, Dr. Lojewski answered written questions drafted by Plaintiff's attorney. (R. at 313-14.) Dr. Lojewski reported that he prescribed Prednisone to his client because steroid treatment is best for sarcoid exacerbations and that it was common for patients suffering from this disease to complain of pain, swelling, and stiffness in their hands and feet. (R. at 314.) He also recommended that Plaintiff abstain from physical work at this time because he had trouble breathing at rest. (Id.)

  B. Plaintiff's Testimony

  During the August 15, 2002 hearing in front of the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that he experienced pain in the middle joint of each of his fingers, (R. at 75-76), that prevented him from opening jars and screwing in light bulbs, (R. at 91-92), and suffered a sticking pain in the middle joint of his toes approximately twice a week that prevented him from walking, (R. at 76-78). He took Prednisone every day and, following Dr. Lojewski's instructions, doubled the dosage of the drug during episodes of severe pain. (R. at 79-80.) In addition, he stated that walking two and a half blocks caused coughing and wheezing, (R. at 85-88), cramping in his feet prevented him from standing for long periods of time, (R. at 88), fatigue necessitated that he lay down during the day, (R. at 89), severe coughing has led to episodes of dizziness and nausea, and shortness of breath ...


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