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Ruth A. Pittman v. Michael J. Astrue Commissioner of Social Security.

December 9, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. P. Michael Mahoney U.S. Magistrate Judge


I. Introduction

Ruth A. Pittman seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This matter is before the magistrate judge pursuant to the consent of both parties, filed on February 23, 2010. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed. R. Civ. P. 73.

II. Administrative Proceedings

Claimant filed her application for SSI on December 14, 2007 alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2007. (Tr. 78, 82.) Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 23, 29.) Claimant filed a request for a hearing on April 28, 2008, though she checked a box indicating that she did not wish to appear at a hearing. (Tr. 33.) The form instructed Claimant to complete Waiver Form HA-4608 if she checked the box stating that she did not wish to appear. (Tr. 33.) There is no indication that Claimant ever completed the Waiver Form. The Hearing Officer Director sent Claimant an acknowledgment of the request for a hearing and a hearing was eventually scheduled for April 15, 2009. (Tr. 34, 47.) Claimant returned the Acknowledgment of Receipt form attached to the Notice of Hearing indicating that she could not be present at the time and place chosen for the hearing because she did not know how to get there and could not leave her father alone. (Tr. 61.) Claimant's counsel clarified Claimant's response in a March 24, 2009 letter to the ALJ indicating that Claimant was caring for her ailing father who was afflicted with Parkinson's Disease, and could not leave him alone to attend her hearing. (Tr. 62.) Counsel's letter asked the ALJ whether Claimant should withdraw her request for a hearing or request a postponement. (Tr. 62.)

There is no evidence in the record to indicate whether the ALJ responded to Claimant's note or her counsel's letter indicating that she could not attend the hearing. On April 13, 2009, two days prior to the scheduled hearing, Claimant's counsel wrote a letter to the ALJ stating that he explained to Claimant that her reasons for not being able to appear at the scheduled hearing did not constitute sufficient grounds for a postponement, and that the ALJ would proceed to decide Claimant's case without a hearing. (Tr. 137.) The letter also stated that Claimant "understands and accepts this and has given me the authorization to speak for her regarding this matter." (Tr. 137.) The ALJ denied Claimant's claim for disability benefits without an oral hearing on May 26, 2009 pursuant to 20 C.F.R. 416.1448(b). (Tr. 13, 16.) Because the Appeals Council denied Claimant's Request for Review regarding the ALJ's decision, that decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 9.)

III. Background

Claimant was born on November 10, 1960, making her 47 years old as of her alleged onset date. (Tr. 78.) Her application indicated that Claimant was married and lived in a house with her family. (Tr. 82, 98.) At the time of her application, she was 5' 3" and 231 pounds. (Tr. 81.) Claimant attended special education classes and completed high school. (Tr. 86.)

She reported previous work experience as a machine operator, inspector, and laundry assistant. (Tr. 88.) Claimant worked as a machine operator between 1975 and 1989 on a full-time basis. (Tr. 88.) The job required her to operate mechanics and carry material weighing up to 20 pounds 50 yards to a machine. (Tr. 83, 89.) Claimant worked full-time as an inspector at a plastics factory between 1990 and 1994, where she inspected and packed parts. (Tr. 88, 90.) She frequently had to lift 25 pounds at the inspector job. (Tr. 90.) Claimant worked as a laundry assistant at a nursing home from 1994 to 1996. (Tr. 88.) Her application indicates that she performed this job two days per week for three hours at a time. (Tr. 91.) At this job, she was required to carry laundry and deliver it to rooms, which required lifting up to 25 pounds frequently. (Tr. 91.) Claimant's Disability Report, as submitted to the State Agency, lists that she stopped working in March of 2000 because she was unable to get along with her bosses. (Tr. 82.)

Claimant listed her disability as a hand deformity that caused her to be unable to lift one hand. (Tr. 82.) A Physical Impairments Questionnaire shows that Claimant described pain when using kitchen tools to prepare a simple meal, no hand strength to open twist lids on jars and food packages, and an inability to grip bags or groceries, a basket of laundry, or to take out trash. (Tr. 96.) Claimant also listed pain when opening the door to a car or getting out of a chair. (Tr. 97.) Claimant's Function Report, completed on January 16, 2008, describes a typical day as getting up and dressed, eating, going out, and watching television. (Tr. 98.) Claimant takes care of her father by taking him to appointments and feeds family pets with the help of her husband and daughter. (Tr. 99.) Her pain affects her sleep, and she cannot wash her hair without help. (Tr. 99.) Claimant's husband prepares meals, but she does laundry and cleaning. (Tr. 100.) Claimant is able to drive, get groceries once a week, and handle her finances. (Tr. 101.) She goes out daily and sometimes shops. (Tr. 101-02.) Activities of lifting, reaching, and using hands were marked as being affected by Claimant's clenched fist syndrome. (Tr. 103.) Claimant is able to walk three blocks before resting, pay attention for two hours, follow written and spoken instructions, and get along with authority figures. (Tr. 103-04.) She was laid off from her last job at a nursing home in 2005 because she could not get along with her boss. (Tr. 104.)

On February 8, 2008, John Frye ("Frye") filled out a vocational assessment form on behalf of the State Agency. (Tr. 107.) Frye rendered his opinion in the context of Claimant's medical history of hypertension and right hand contracture deformity. (Tr. 107.) Frye found that Claimant retained a capacity for no more than light work. (Tr. 107.) Claimant had the additional restrictions that she has only the occasional ability to crawl and was limited to handling and fingering with the right hand occasionally. (Tr. 107.) Frye found that Claimant was not capable of performing any past relevant work either as described or as generally done in the national economy because her past work is more than light or required more than occasional handling and fingering in nature. (Tr. 107.) Frye opined that there were a sufficient number of jobs within the occupational base which could be performed by persons with Claimant's limitations, including the examples of page, furniture rental consultant, and financial investigator for dealer accounts.

(Tr. 107.)

IV. Medical Evidence

On September 27, 2007, Claimant saw Dr. Shailesh R. Virani, M.D., with stiffness in her right hand which she had been experiencing for two years. (Tr. 156.) Dr. Virani observed that Claimant was unable to extend the joints on her second, third, and fourth fingers, but denied any wrist pain, numbness, or tingling. (Tr. 156.) Claimant was diagnosed with right hand contracture deformity, most likely secondary to Dupuytren's contracture, and with hypertension. (Tr. 156.) Dr. Virani prescribed atenolol for Claimant's blood pressure and referred her to an orthopedic surgeon. (Tr. 156.) On the same date, Dr. Virani filled out a Medical Evaluation Form for the State Agency indicating that Claimant had up to 20 percent reduced capacity in her finger dexterity on her right hand. (Tr. 140-41.) The Evaluation Form indicated that Claimant could lift no more than 20 pounds and no more than 10 pounds frequently. (Tr. 141.) Claimant was not limited in her ability to perform activities of daily living. (Tr. 141.)

Claimant saw Dr. Virani on October 11, 2007 for a follow-up appointment relating to her hypertension. (Tr. 154.) Claimant was advised to follow a low-salt diet, to avoid fast food, and to try to eat fruits and vegetables. (Tr. 154.) Dr. Virani increased the dosage on her blood pressure medication. (Tr. 154.) On October 25, 2007, Claimant had another follow-up appointment regarding her blood pressure. (Tr. 152.) Dr. Virani noted that Claimant's systolic blood pressure ran in the 140s or 150s, but that she denied any other complaints. (Tr. 152.) Dr. Virani changed her mediation to chlorthalidone, and advised Claimant to follow up in one week. (Tr. 152.) At the ...

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