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Michele Graciano v. Michael J. Astrue

February 23, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge.



Michele Graciano ("Plaintiff" or "Graciano") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-83f (the "Act"). This matter comes before the court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 6, 8). The record was developed at the administrative level. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.


Graciano filed for DIB and SSI with the Social Security Administration on August 5, 2008, claiming an inability to work due to disability as of March 18, 2008. (R. at 90-100).*fn1 She was initially denied benefits on October 6, 2008. (R. at 68-77). A hearing was held on March 31, 2010, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified. (R. at 45-64). A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (R. at 61-63). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued his decision denying benefits to Plaintiff on April 6, 2010. (R. at 6- 21). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The request was denied on September 14, 2010, thereby making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at 1-3).

Plaintiff filed her complaint in this court on November 17, 2010. (ECF No. 3). Defendant filed an answer on January 21, 2011. (ECF No. 4). Cross-motions for summary judgment followed. (ECF Nos. 6, 8).


A. General Background

Graciano was born on September 4, 1970, and was thirty-nine years old at the time of her administrative hearing. (R. at 90-100). She lived with her fiancé and had a sixteen-year-old daughter and a twenty-year-old son. (R. at 59, 107). Plaintiff graduated from high school, and was enrolled in college level courses in pursuit of an associate's degree. (R. at 52- 53). The courses were internet-based. (R. at 52--53).

Plaintiff's past relevant employment immediately prior to her disability onset date included employment as a night monitor/counselor at a juvenile detention center and as a self-employed babysitter. (R. at 48, 119--20). She had last worked a full-time job in 2008. (R. at 48). She attempted part-time work assisting mentally handicapped adults briefly in 2009. (R. at 48). Plaintiff claimed that she ultimately was unable to hold any job due to pain and limitations stemming from knee and back injuries sustained while working as a night monitor/counselor in 2006. (R. at 118). Plaintiff claimed that she had difficulties walking, sitting, standing, and lifting. (R. at 112, 115). Plaintiff stated that she required the use of a cane and brace/splint. (R. at 113, 116). Her pain was intermittent throughout the day. (R. at 107, 109-10, 112, 114-16). She also considered diagnosed depression as an impairment precluding her ability to work. (R. at 112, 114).

In a self-report of functional capacity, Plaintiff stated that her daily activities included making sure that her daughter was ready for school, making breakfast, cooking meals, caring for her dog, shopping for groceries, clothing, and other necessities, and cleaning the house. (R. at 106-16). Plaintiff also enjoyed watching television. (R. at 107, 111). Plaintiff claimed that pain in her knee and back limited her at times. (R. at 107, 109-10, 112-16). If she cooked, it involved meals that were fast and easy to prepare. (R. at 107-09, 114). Her daughter often helped her with daily chores. (R. at 108-09). Plaintiff maintained a driver's license and was capable of driving on her own. (R. at 110). Plaintiff paid her bills, and could handle savings and checking accounts. (R. at 110-11). Plaintiff's hobbies included singing and reading. (R. at 111). Plaintiff regularly went to church. (Id.).

Plaintiff indicated that she had no difficulties getting along with family, friends, neighbors, or other people in general. (R. at 112). Her ability to maintain attention was intact, she could finish activities she started, she followed instructions well, and her ability to get along with authority figures was good. (R. at 112-13). Plaintiff could somewhat handle stress, but handled changes in routine fairly well. (R. at 113).

B. Treatment History

On January 12, 2007, Plaintiff appeared at the office of Ann-Richie Rodriguez, M.D., complaining of left knee pain. (R. at 191-92). Plaintiff initially presented to Dr. Rodriguez on December 11, 2006. (R. at 191). Plaintiff was diagnosed with a left meniscal tear. (R. at 191-92). Arthroscopy was suggested. (R. at 191). At the January 12, 2007 visit, Plaintiff's knee had no deformities, but showed minimal effusions, medial joint line tenderness, and limited range of motion. (Id.) A valgus stress test was positive, but Lachman's testing and a varus stress test produced negative results. (R. at 191). No crepitus was noted. (Id.).

Following a lack of improvement in knee pain with conservative treatment, Plaintiff was recommended for arthroscopic partial meniscectomy for a lateral meniscus tear and degenerative joint disease. (R. at 216). A surgeon, Michael Tranovich, M.D., performed an arthroscopic chondroplasty and partial meniscectomy on Plaintiff's left knee on January 22, 2007. (R. at 217). Plaintiff's knee was observed to have significant arthritis and a tear of the lateral meniscus. (Id.). Plaintiff tolerated the procedure well. (Id.).

Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Rodriguez and David Garzarelli, M.D. on February 15, 2007 following her arthroscopy. (R. at 187-90). Three weeks after the surgery, Plaintiff was complaining of mild pain and was walking with crutches. (R. at 189). It was noted that Plaintiff was to begin physical therapy the following week. (Id.). Plaintiff's left knee was restricted in range of motion due to pain, but was stable, showed no crepitus, and showed no deformity. (Id.).

Following her surgical procedure, Plaintiff regularly followed up with Dr. Tranovich. (R. at 207-15). Plaintiff was at times noted to experience symptoms of synovitis, mild swelling, mild tenderness, minimal effusion, subjective discomfort and some weakness, often exacerbated by activity, but with mild improvement over time. (Id.). She was to engage in physical therapy and was provided prescription medication and injections for pain. (Id.). Despite slow improvement in pain and limitations associated with her left knee, by June 21, 2007, Dr. Tranovich considered Plaintiff capable of light duty or sedentary work. (R. at 207-08). Due to reported increases in pain, by August 16, 2007, Dr. Tranovich indicated that Plaintiff may not be able to continue working. (R. at 206).

Plaintiff completed a full course of physical therapy by October 2007. (R. at 201). She still complained to Dr. Tranovich about pain in her left knee, which worsened with activity. (Id.). Dr. Tranovich observed minimal synovitis, distal tenderness in the quadriceps of the knee, and mild instability. (Id.). Plaintiff was to use a TENS unit for pain relief. (Id.). Various injections into the left knee beginning in July 2007 and ending in September 2007 were allegedly ineffective in alleviating Plaintiff's pain. (R. at 201-07).

Plaintiff's physical therapy discharge summary indicated that Plaintiff attended eighty-one therapy sessions. (R. at 222). Plaintiff was noted as capable of riding a bicycle for ten minutes and performing a left knee extension of forty pounds. (Id.). Plaintiff could perform a leg press up to eighty pounds. (Id.). Plaintiff rated her knee pain as four on a pain scale of ten, although the therapist had hoped to achieve greater pain relief. (Id.). Plaintiff did have nearly full knee strength in both extension and flexion. (Id.). Plaintiff's physical therapist felt that Plaintiff plateaued in her recovery and would ...

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