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Gary L. Stouffer v. Michael J. Astrue

February 7, 2012

GARY L. STOUFFER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Gary L. Stouffer, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which denied his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 -- 433 ("Act"). This matter comes before the court on cross motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 8, 10). The record has been fully developed at the administrative level. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment will be DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be GRANTED.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff initially filed an application for DIB, in which he claims total disability since December 1, 2007. (R. at 112 -- 14)*fn1 . An administrative hearing was held on October 19, 2009, before Administrative Law Judge Marty R. Pillion("ALJ"). Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Irene H. Montgomery, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing.

On November 11, 2009, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff in which he found that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform sedentary work, with certain restrictions and, therefore, was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act.

The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on December 20, 2010, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the decision of the ALJ.

On January 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this Court in which he seeks judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. Defendant filed his Answer on April 1, 2011. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

III. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

A.General Background

Plaintiff was born March 20, 1965 and was forty four*fn2 years of age at the time of his administrative hearing. (R. at 31). He lived with his wife and two sons in a split-level home.
(R. at 32). Plaintiff graduated high school and completed approximately one-and-one-half years of vocational training in refrigeration, air-conditioning, heating, and plumbing. (R. at 33). His last full-time job was as a supervisor/ carpenter with his brother's contracting company. (R. at 33 -- 36). He was laid off from work in December 2007 -- around the time of his claimed disability onset. (R. at 33). Plaintiff's primary source of income since then has been his wife, but he receives medical benefits through the state. (R. at 32).

Plaintiff's disability application indicated that he was not able to work due to symptoms related to diagnosed Multiple Sclerosis ("MS"), including persistent weakness, severe pain, dizziness, slurred speech, and fatigue. (R. at 141 -- 52, 166 -- 67). In a self-report of day-to-day functioning, Plaintiff stated that his activities were typically limited to taking his children to and from their school bus, helping with school work, watching television, and preparing simple meals. (R. at 166 -- 76). He was able to spend up to four hours a week mowing his lawn with the aid of a lawn tractor. (R. at 166 -- 76). Plaintiff usually left the house twice a day, was able to drive a car, and was able to shop for necessary items. (R. at 166 -- 76). He had no problems paying bills, counting change, and handling savings/ checking accounts. (R. at 166 -- 76). Plaintiff was still able to engage in hobbies such as fishing, coaching, and working with the cub scouts. (R. at 166 -- 76). He was limited, however, by his need to sit more frequently. (R. at 166 -- 76). Plaintiff tried to attend church every week. (R. at 166 -- 76).

Plaintiff claimed that he had been laid off from his last job because he was not able to keep up with his work. (R. at 166 -- 76). He claimed to need a cane to ambulate, although it had not been prescribed. (R. at 166 -- 76). Plaintiff's MS-related symptoms were allegedly progressively worsening. (R. at 166 -- 76).

B.Medical Background

Plaintiff appeared at the emergency department of Latrobe Hospital in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on May 15, 2007. (R. at 208 -- 09, 215 -- 20). He complained of numbness on the right side of his face, beginning at the corner of his mouth, moving towards his ear, and terminating at his scalp. (R. at 208 -- 09, 215 -- 20). An examination of Plaintiff was unremarkable, with the exception of his claimed facial numbness. (R. at 208 -- 09, 215 -- 20). Plaintiff had proper reflexes and his cranial nerves were normal. (R. at 208 -- 09, 215 -- 20). Hospital staff noted that Plaintiff had earlier complained to his primary care physician of numbness in the lower extremities, but that diagnostic imaging returned normal results. (R. at 208 -- 09, 215 -- 20). Plaintiff was recommended for a neurological consultation. (R. at 208 -- 09, 215 -- 20).

The following day, Plaintiff was evaluated by neurologist Joseph Zayat, M.D., of Westmoreland Neurology in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. (R. at 210 -- 11). Dr. Zayat reviewed MRI and CT imaging of Plaintiff's brain and found no abnormality. (R. at 210 -- 11, 213 -- 14). All other diagnostic testing was normal. (R. at 210 -- 11). Dr. Zayat noted that Plaintiff complained of right facial numbness for four (4) days. (R. at 210 -- 11). Plaintiff was otherwise "very healthy." (R. at 210 -- 11). There was no associated pain, but Plaintiff reported that the numbness had spread to the teeth and mouth. (R. at 210 -- 11). Physically, Plaintiff was relatively normal. (R. at 210 -- 11). Dr. Zayat diagnosed idiopathic right trigeminal neuropathy. (R. at 210 -- 11).

Plaintiff returned to Latrobe Hospital on July 6, 2007. (R. at 201 -- 06). He complained of headache, dizziness, and numbness on the right side of his face. (R. at 201 -- 06). Hospital staff noted that Plaintiff was alert and appeared well. (R. at 201 -- 06). Plaintiff again saw Dr. Zayat on July 16, 2007, who noted that Plaintiff's complaints included right sided facial numbness, numbness of the left arm and both legs, and coldness in the left shoulder and arm. (R. at 273). Plaintiff did not complain of weakness, headache, dizziness, or vertigo. (R. at 273).

Dr. Zayat referred Plaintiff to neurosurgeon Michael J. Rutigliano, M.D., for further evaluation. (R. at 273).

On August 3, 2007, Dr. Rutigliano assessed Plaintiff and noted that Plaintiff had relatively normal results following a spinal tap and MRI scans. (R. at 222 -- 23). However, Dr. Rutigliano noted that Plaintiff's brain MRI showed the existence of a signal lesion of the right pons, which would correlate with Plaintiff's facial numbness. (R. at 222 -- 23). A signal ...


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