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Pierce v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 15, 2016

TERRANCE PIERCE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Thomas M. DiGirolamo United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Terrance Pierce seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14).[1] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision that he is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) is GRANTED, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) is DENIED, and the Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED.

         I

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1961, has an eighth-grade education, and previously worked as an automotive mechanic, furniture mover, wrecking mechanic, construction worker, and laborer. R. at 25, 37-43. Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on March 30, 2012 (with a protective filing date of March 2, 2012), alleging disability beginning on April 1, 2009, due to bad knees, carpal tunnel syndrome, and severe arthritis in his ankles and feet. R. at 168-83, 215, 227. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s applications initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 90-134, 138-47. On July 16, 2014, ALJ Robert W. Young held a hearing in Baltimore, Maryland, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 33-59. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date of disability to the date of his 50th birthday. R. at 36. On September 24, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled “from April 1, 2009, through the date of [the] decision.” R. at 26. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff’s request for review on January 23, 2015. R. at 1-5, 10, 288-93. The ALJ’s decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On March 27, 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner’s decision. Upon the parties’ consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case subsequently was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.

         II

         Summary of Evidence

         A. Opinion Evidence

         1. Michael T. Sullivan, M.D.

         Dr. Michael Sullivan treated Plaintiff every three months at Mission of Mercy for about three years beginning in December 2010. R. at 24, 49-50, 298-337, 372-91. On July 4, 2011, Dr. Sullivan opined on a “Medical Report Form 402B” (R. at 332-35) that, because of his joint pain and right knee pain, Plaintiff could stand for one hour and walk for one hour in an eight-hour workday. R. at 332-33. He could sit and reach without restrictions, but he could never climb, bend, squat, or crawl. R. at 333. According to Dr. Sullivan, Plaintiff could lift less than ten pounds, and he could use his hands for simple grasping, pushing, and fine manipulation. R. at 333. Dr. Sullivan also opined that Plaintiff had marked restriction in activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; no difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and repeated (three or more) episodes of decompensation. R. at 334. Dr. Sullivan further opined that Plaintiff’s medical condition limited his ability to work from June 27, 2011, to June 27, 2012. R. at 335.

         On April 4, 2012, Dr. Sullivan opined on a “Medical Report Form 500” (R. at 336-37) that, because of Plaintiff’s right knee pain and instability, he could stand for one hour, walk for one hour, and reach for two hours in an eight-hour workday. R. at 336. Although he could sit without restrictions, Plaintiff could never climb, bend, squat, or crawl. R. at 336. Dr. Sullivan opined that Plaintiff could lift at most ten pounds. R. at 336. According to Dr. Sullivan, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that interfered with his ability to function independently, appropriately, and effectively on a continuous basis. R. at 337. Plaintiff had moderate restriction in daily living activities, mild difficulty in maintaining social functioning, and moderate restriction in maintaining concentration that limited his ability to work from April 4, 2012, to April 4, 2013. R. at 337.

         2. State Agency Medical Consultants

         On July 6, 2012, a state agency medical consultant, S.K. Najar, M.D., assessed Plaintiff’s physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”). R. at 95-97, 105-07. Dr. Najar opined that Plaintiff could (1) lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling. R. at 95-96, 105-06. Plaintiff frequently could balance and occasionally could stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs (but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds). R. at 96, 106. Plaintiff had no manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations, but he was to avoid all exposure to hazards, such as machinery and heights. R. at 96-97, 106-07. On January 16, 2013, another state agency consultant, Nisha Singh, M.D., expressed the same opinion about Plaintiff’s physical RFC. R. at 116-18, 126-28.

         B. Hearing Testimony

         1. Plaintiff’s Testimony

         The ALJ reviewed Plaintiff’s testimony in his decision:

[Plaintiff] testified that he stopped working because he was experiencing constant pain in his hands, knees and wrists, and he stated that he is currently unable to work because of constant pain in his knees, ankles, feet and hands. [Plaintiff] elaborated that this pain prevents him from sitting for more than 15 minutes, standing for more than 5 minutes, walking for more than three to five minutes and lifting more than five to ten pounds. [Plaintiff] further stated that he gets dizzy and experiences back pain if he bends over, shoulder pain prevents him from reaching overhead, he could not bend over to pick something up off the floor if he dropped it and that his hands cramp when he is writing or picking things up. He elaborated that in order to get a coin [off] a table, he would have to slide it, as opposed to picking it up. Despite reporting some trouble fastening buttons, [Plaintiff] admitted that he is able to bathe, dress and shave himself, as well as wash his hair and tie his shoes. [Plaintiff] stated that he resides in the basement of a friend’s three-story townhouse, and admittedly climbs the stairs at least once a day and is able to reach in front. In addition to visiting neighbors and going shopping, [Plaintiff] testified that he is able to let the dog out, wash dishes, prepare microwavable [sic] meals and do laundry. Although [Plaintiff] rated his pain as a six or seven, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most painful, he admitted that his prescribed pain medication, Oxycodone, provides some relief. In addition to causing stomach pain, [Plaintiff] stated that his medication makes him drowsy, and as a result he naps two to three times a week, for two to three hours at a time. In addition to napping, [Plaintiff] stated that he rests with his feet on an ottoman, at ...

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