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Steven Baylis v. Michael J. Astrue

August 3, 2011



Plaintiff Steven Baylis seeks a judgment reversing or vacating the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. Magistrate Judge Caracappa filed a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") that recommended affirming the SSA's decision. In a memorandum opinion dated August 9, 2010, this court vacated the SSA's decision and remanded the case for further consideration. Before the court now is defendant's Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend the judgment. For the reasons that follow, the court will vacate its prior order, adopt the R&R, and affirm the SSA's decision.

I. Background

Plaintiff Baylis made three objections to the R&R, but this court did not address those objections in its previous memorandum opinion because the SSA's decision was vacated on alternate, independent grounds. Because resolving defendant's Rule 59(e) motion will require the court to reconsider all three objections, the court will review the factual background of this case as it is relevant to those objections. A comprehensive account of the factual background to this action can be found in the R&R. See R&R at 5--23.

Baylis is a 57 year-old man born October 9, 1953. He completed ninth grade, and used to work as a transmission installer. On July 23, 2004, Baylis applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. He claimed to have been disabled since January 30, 2002 because of problems with his shoulders, problems with his right thumb, and depression. Baylis's initial application for DIB on July 23, 2004 was denied. He filed another application for DIB on September 15, 2005. The second application was also denied, and Baylis requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

ALJ Lenzi heard Baylis's case on January 31, 2007. She too denied Baylis's application, finding that although Baylis "suffered from the severe impairments of right shoulder arthritis, right thumb arthritis, and right wrist ganglion cysts," he was not disabled because was capable of performing medium work with some limitations. R&R at 2. Baylis appealed, and on July 27, 2007 the Appeals Council granted his request for review. Id.

The Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for further consideration of the opinions of two doctors who evaluated Baylis, and of Baylis's subjective complaints. Id. ALJ Lenzi held a supplemental hearing on October 30, 2007, to consider these issues. R&R at 2--3. In addition, she also considered Baylis newly-filed application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The evidence presented at the hearings is summarized in the following paragraphs.

In November 2001, Baylis fell at his job as a transmission installer, and he went to Mercy Hospital of Philadelphia on November 14, 2001 with complaints of right shoulder pain. Tr. 248. On January 17, 2002, Dr. Menachem Meller performed surgery on Baylis to correct "[r]ight shoulder impingement," "AC joint arthritis," and a "possible rotator cuff tear." Tr. 234. In April 2002, Baylis returned for a post-operation visit and Dr. Meller noted that Baylis "was doing very, very well [with] almost no pain and excellent motion" after the operation, but that upon his return to work Baylis used his right upper extremity and now has "incapacitating pain" which prevents him from "elevating the arm, or using the arm [to] any significant degree." Tr. 320.

In January 2006, Baylis visited Dr. Raul Yankelevich, who determined that Baylis could raise his right arm to 30 degrees forward and 35 degrees to the side. Tr. 405. He also determined that Baylis had no range of motion in his MP joint,*fn1 and was unable to touch his thumb to his ring and small fingers. Id. Dr. Yankelevich also tested Baylis's grip strength and found that his grip was half as strong in his right, dominant, hand than it was in his left hand. Id.

Less than two weeks later, on February 10, 2006, Dr. Oliver Finch performed a residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment on Baylis. Dr. Finch determined that Baylis could occasionally lift and/or carry 50 pounds; frequently lift and/or carry 25 pounds; stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; and push and/or pull with his upper extremities only to a limited degree. Tr. 407. Dr. Finch found that Baylis's ability to reach overhead and handle objects with his right hand was limited. Tr. 408. Dr. Finch also determined that Baylis could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, but that he could only occasionally climb or crawl. Id.

On October 23, 2006, Baylis went to Dr. Onyeama Anakwe for pain in his neck, back, shoulder, right thumb, and left ring finger that was exacerbated by a car accident on September 9, 2006. Tr. 425. Dr. Anakwe examined Baylis and determined that his left shoulder had 80% of normal range of motion with mild tenderness; his right shoulder had 30% of normal range of motion with "very exquisite tenderness"; his right thumb was tender but had no swelling; and his left ring finger had full range of motion but was tender when extended or flexed. Tr. 427. Dr. Anakwe also noted that "Baylis had been relatively symptom free at the time of [the September 9, 2006 car accident]." Id. Baylis returned to Dr. Anakwe twelve times for follow-up evaluations from November 2006 to September 2007, and Dr. Anakwe rated Baylis's bilateral upper extremity muscle strength as 5/5 on ten occasions, and 4/5 on two occasions. Tr. 439--451.Dr. Anakwe also referred Baylis to Dr. Howard Hutt, who performed an MRI on Baylis's spine on April 20, 2007, and found disc desiccation and herniation. See Tr. 435--438.

Having considered this medical evidence, the ALJ found in her written decision dated November 19, 2007, that Baylis was not disabled through December 31, 2006 and denied his application for SSI and DIB. Tr. 39. The Appeals Council denied Baylis's request for review on April 28, 2009, R&R at 3, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, see Brownawell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 554 F.3d 352, 353 n.1 (3d Cir. 2008).

On May 27, 2009, Baylis appealed the Commissioner's decision by filing a civil action in this court. See Docket No. 3 (Request for Review). The request was referred to Magistrate Judge Caracappa, who filed a R&R on August 9, 2010 that recommended affirming the ALJ's decision. See Docket No. 12. In his timely objection to the R&R, Baylis argued that (1) the R&R should have concluded that the ALJ's RFC assessment was inadequate because "it does not appropriately limit Mr. Baylis' use of his right hand for fine manipulation, grasping, and handling"; (2) the R&R did not specifically discuss the fact that Baylis cannot reach above shoulder level with his right upper extremity; and (3) the R&R did not adequately address the fact that the ALJ ignored "nearly a year's worth of medical evidence that shows a deteriorating condition and speaks to the heart of the issues involved." Docket No. 13 at 1--3.

In a memorandum opinion dated August 9, 2010, this court ruled for Baylis on an independent ground not raised in his objections: namely, that because Baylis was 56 years old at the time, and therefore "a person of advanced age," his entitlement to benefits turned on whether his vocational skills were transferable. See Docket No. 14 at 7--8. The memorandum remanded the case to the finder of fact to determine whether his skills were in fact transferable and did not discuss Baylis's three objections to the R&R.

Two days later, on August 11, 2010, Commissioner Astrue ("Commissioner") filed a timely motion to alter or amend the judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e). He contends that this court made clear errors of law when it: (1) considered Baylis' age at the time of this court's decision instead of his age at the time of the Commissioner's decision; and (2) determined that ...

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