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James Thomas v. Michael J. Astrue

September 22, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baylson, J.


Plaintiff James Thomas ("Thomas") requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383(c). (Compl., ECF No. 3.) Pending before the Court are Thomas's Complaint and his Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of Request for Review (Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 10) and the Commissioner's response thereto (Resp., ECF No. 11). After careful and independent consideration of the matter, and for the following reasons, the Court will deny Thomas's request for review.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Thomas filed for DIB and SSI on February 6, 2008. (A.R. 136-38, 139-41.) He claimed a disability onset date of April 2, 2006 (id. 136, 139), which he later amended to November 14, 2006 (id. 186). At that time, he was forty years old. (See id. 136.) He is now forty-five years old. Thomas has prior relevant work experience as a gym trainer, a gym salesman, and a construction worker II. (Id. 14.) He completed high school. (Id. 24.) Thomas claims disability due to torn cartilage and ligaments in his knee, lumbar and cervical spine conditions, and back arthritis. (Id. 10, 160.)

On May 27, 2008, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Thomas's claims for DIB and SSI benefits. (Id. 82, 87.) Thomas then timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was held on May 14, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Id. 16-79, 92-95.) At the hearing, Thomas testified that he experiences pain everyday. (Id. 64.) He has problems with his left knee and back which affect his ability to sit, stand, walk, and climb stairs. (Id.) Standing eases his pain, which gets worse when he sits down; but if he stands too long, his left leg will go numb. (Id. 64-65.) He also claimed he was in an accident in August 2008 which made his condition worse. (Id. 66.) Since the accident, he has experienced limited feeling in the fourth and fifth digits of each hand. (Id.) Although it exacerbated his pain, he testified his limitations are the same as before the accident. (Id. 68-69.)

Thomas stated that he cooks in the microwave, goes grocery shopping, dusts, takes out the trash, and does laundry. (Id. 53-58.) But he does not vacuum and needs help with the grocery bags. (Id. 53, 55.) Thomas also testified that he lives with a roommate who vacuums and does more cooking. (Id. 23, 55-56.) Although he occasionally walks to a nearby park and spends every other weekend with his daughter (id. 51-52), he walks with a non-prescribed cane, sleeps with a prescribed neck brace, is only able to walk one or two city blocks before needing to rest, and can sit or stand alternately for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time (id. 41-43). Further, he can occasionally lift fifteen pounds, but only with his right (and dominant) hand. (Id. 44.)

The vocational expert ("VE") testified twice during the hearing -- first to identify Thomas's past relevant work and then again to respond to the ALJ's hypotheticals. The VE identified Thomas's past relevant work as a construction worker II and as a salesperson and trainer in a gym setting. (Id. 35.) Salesperson is semi-skilled, light work, which Thomas performed at the medium exertional level; construction worker II is unskilled, very heavy work; and trainer is skilled, medium work. (Id. at 35-36.)

The ALJ then posed several hypotheticals to the VE. (See id. 69-76.) If the ALJ fully credited Thomas's testimony regarding his limitations, the VE testified Thomas could not return to his past relevant work and could not perform any entry-level unskilled work. (Id. 70-71.) The ALJ then limited Thomas to the full range of light work by adopting the assessment of consultative examiner Dr. Candelaria Legaspi. (See id. 262-65.) The VE testified Thomas could not return to his past relevant work as he performed it, but he could as these jobs are performed in the national economy. (Id. 71-72.) He could also perform the full range of unskilled, light work which is available in the national economy. (Id. 72-73.) The ALJ then posed a hypothetical in which he adopted the assessment of consultative examiner Dr. Ira Rubenfeld, who suggested significant postural limitations. (Id. 73-74, see id. 240-48.) According to the VE, with such limitations, Thomas could not perform his past relevant work or any work in the national economy. (Id. 74.) If Thomas had to avoid heavy lifting and car rides, the VE testified Thomas could perform his past relevant work other than construction worker II. (Id. 74-75.)

In the final hypothetical, the ALJ limited Thomas to unskilled, sedentary work. (Id. 75.) The VE testified that Thomas would not be able to perform his past relevant work, but could perform jobs available in the national economy, including final assembler and table worker. (Id. 75-76.) With an additional sit/stand option restriction, the VE testified there would be ten percent fewer jobs available in the economy. (Id. 76.)

On June 2, 2009, the ALJ issued his decision denying Thomas's claims for benefits. (Id. 8-15.) The ALJ found Thomas had not performed any substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date. (Id. 10.) He also concluded Thomas suffers from severe impairments resulting from lumbar and cervical spine conditions, but that these impairments do not meet or equal the listed impairments. (Id. 12.) The ALJ did not find Thomas's persistent left knee pain was sufficiently supported by objective medical evidence to constitute a severe impairment.*fn1 (Id. 10-11.) Although the ALJ did not find Thomas's statements concerning his impairments and their effects fully credible, he did find that Thomas is limited to the full range of sedentary work.*fn2 (Id. 12-13.) Presuming Thomas could not perform his past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that "[b]ased on a residual functional capacity for the full range of sedentary work, considering [Thomas]'s age, educational background, and work experience," there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy which Thomas can perform. (Id. 14.) Consequently, he has not been under a disability since the amended alleged onset date. (Id. 15.)

In his decision, the ALJ noted he gave "careful consideration [to] the entire record,"including Thomas's hearing testimony, the opinions of several medical sources, and the medical records submitted with Thomas's claims. (Id. 10-13.) The ALJ found that Thomas's testimony regarding the intensity, persistence, and functionally limiting effects of his impairments was "not credible to the extent [it is] inconsistent with" the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment. (Id. 13.)

On July 6, 2009, Thomas appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. (Id. 187-88.) The Appeals Council denied Thomas's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final determination. (Id. 1-3.) Thomas then filed a timely complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's final determination. (Compl.)

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

A. Jurisdiction

This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner . . . made after a hearing to which he was a party . . . may obtain review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision . . . ."); (see also A.R. 1-3). Venue is proper in this Court pursuant to § 405(g).

B. Standard of Review

District courts may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding the matter for rehearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court's role in reviewing the ALJ's decision is to determine whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the ...

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