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Cleo Sanders v. Michael J. Astrue

July 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Morton Denlow


Claimant Cleo Sanders ("Claimant") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking summary reversal or remand of the final decision by Defendant Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Claimant raises the following issues in support of his motion: (1) whether the ALJ erred in denying Claimant's request for a supplemental consultative evaluation; and (2) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the evidence from Roseland Mental Health Center. For the following reasons, the Court denies Claimant's motion for summary reversal or remand and grants the Commissioner's motion to affirm the Commissioner's decision.


A. Procedural History

Claimant filed for SSI on July 25, 2006, initially alleging a disability onset date of August 20, 1998. R. 127-29. Claimant later amended his alleged onset date to July 25, 2006, the date of his filing. R.116-19. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") originally denied Claimant's application on September 7, 2006, and again upon reconsideration on October 18, 2006. R. 66-67. On October 23, 2006, Claimant requested a hearing before an ALJ. R. 74.

On September 11, 2008, Administrative Law Judge Judith S. Goodie ("ALJ") presided over a hearing at which Claimant appeared with his attorney, Deborah Spector. R. 22-65. Claimant and a vocational expert, Pamela Tucker, testified at the hearing. Id. Claimant requested a post hearing consultative psychological evaluation on September 19, 2008. R. 193-97. The ALJ denied this request. R. 10.

On October 31, 2008, the ALJ rendered a decision finding Claimant not disabled under the Social Security Act. R. 10-21. In that decision, the ALJ denied Claimant's request for an additional evaluation, finding that Claimant had not shown cause for further development of the medical evidence. Id. Specifically, the ALJ found that Claimant has the "residual functioning capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: he is able to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks, with only occasional interaction with the general public, supervisors, and co-workers, and with no more than occasional changes in work routine and setting, and occasional kneeling, crawling, and stairs, with theallowance for being off-task 10% of the time with one absence per month, and with no strict production quotas." R. 17.

Claimant then filed for review of the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. R. 120-21. On May 27, 2011, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-6. Claimant subsequently filed this action for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 636(c). Dkt. 10. The Court held oral arguments on July 9, 2012.

B. Hearing Testimony

1. Cleo Sanders -- Claimant

At the time of the hearing, Claimant was fifty-three years old and single with one adult child. R. 25, 49. Claimant completed high school and received a certificate for locksmith training. R. 31. His past relevant work experience included maintenance worker and locksmith. R. 19, 31-32. Additionally, Claimant's prior work included driver, locksmith, nursing home security guard, telemarketer, and part-time worker at UPS. R. 32-33. In 2000, the last year in which Claimant worked, UPS terminated him because of a dispute with his supervisor and he lost his job as a nursing home security guard after a resident escaped. Id.

Claimant testified that he previously lived in a boarding house for three months, and that at the time of the hearing was living with his friend, a senior citizen. R. 35. While Claimant got along fine with his previous and current roommates, he chooses to keep to himself. R. 36-37. Claimant testified that his current roommate does most of the cooking, the laundry, and the shopping. R. 37. He does not have a driver's license due to a DWI, but uses public transportation. R. 37-38. He spends most of his time at home watching television, and he leaves the house once or twice per week. R. 38.

During the hearing, Claimant testified he cannot work because of his "mind-set" and memory problems. R. 41. His current medication, Cymbalta, helps him sleep and focus better. R. 41, 44. Even so, he thinks his mind would not allow him to work. R. 56.

Claimant testified he tore a ligament in his right knee in the 1990s, but he never received medical treatment for this injury. R. 43. Claimant described his difficulty climbing stairs, walking distances greater than a block, and standing after prolonged sitting, though he rides his bike twice per week. R. 43-45. He said he can stand for fifteen to twenty minutes and sit for thirty minutes at a time. R. 46. He thought he could lift twenty-five to thirty pounds. Id.

Claimant acknowledged that he was drinking a pint of whiskey and a 22-ounce beer daily in 2006. R. 38. Though Claimant said it was possible he did not tell his therapist about drinking right away, he told his therapist he planned to quit and did so in April 2008. R. 39-40, 53. He has never attended alcohol rehabilitation, but he attends therapy regularly. R. 39-40. All of his alcohol screenings at the Board of Health have been negative. R. 53. Among other things, the combination of his separation from his wife, a death in the family, and the failure of his locksmith business caused him to start feeling depressed in the 1990s. R. 52. Claimant leaves his home only for therapy because he does not want to interact with other people. R.51. He said that while regular therapy, biking, quitting drinking, and receiving treatment has made things a little better, he still feels hopeless and as though his life is "on hold." R. 52, 55-56.

2. Pamela Tucker -- Vocational Expert ("VE")

A vocational expert, Pamela Tucker, classified Claimant's past work as maintenance worker as medium, semi-skilled work. R. 57. The VE described Claimant's past work as a telemarketer as sedentary, semi-skilled work and his work as a locksmith as light, semi-skilled work. Id. Finally, the VE categorized his experience as a dock worker as heavy and unskilled work. Id. She determined that his work as a security guard and laborer at UPS were not substantial gainful activity. Id.

While questioning the VE, the ALJ described a hypothetical person of the same age, educational background, and work experience as Claimant, with the functional capacity to: complete simple routine, repetitive tasks; have only occasional interaction with the general public, supervisors, and co-workers; have only occasional changes in work routine and setting; and only occasionally kneel, crawl, or climb stairs. R. 58. The VE testified that this person could perform Claimant's past work as a dock worker, which is heavy and unskilled work. Id. That person could also perform the jobs of: laundry worker, of which there are 4000; dishwasher, of which there are 18,000; and hand packer, of which there are 10,000.

R. 58-59. At the light level, the person would be able to perform the work of: assembler, of which there are 3000; light packer, of which there are 7000; and light laundry worker, of which there are 3200. R. 59.

The ALJ then added the additional limitation that the person would be expected to be off task ten percent of the time. R. 60. The VE responded that the off-task limitation would eliminate the hand packer position, though later testimony indicates that it would also eliminate the assembler and packer positions. R. 60-61.

Finally, the ALJ added to her hypothetical that the person could not perform with a strict production quota. R. 62. This restriction would eliminate any type of production jobs (such as a hand packer, assembler, and light packer) but the person could still perform the work of a laundry worker and dishwasher. Id.

Upon questioning by Claimant's attorney, the VE testified that the job base would be eroded, depending on what the essential functions of the job were, if the hypothetical person could follow and understand instructions but not retain them. R. 61. If the hypothetical person had difficulty ...

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