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Joseph Herny Thornton v. Michael J. Astrue

February 7, 2013

JOSEPH HERNY THORNTON
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM RE: Request for Review

I. Introduction

Claimant Joseph Henry Thornton seeks judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner") denying his applications for Supplemental Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, 1381-83(f). After careful consideration of all the relevant facts and circumstances, and for the reasons below, Thornton's Request for Review of the April 14, 2010 decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is DENIED, and his Complaint is DISMISSED with prejudice.

II. Background

A.Procedural History

On March 31, 2006, Thornton filed applications for SSDI and SSI. (Tr. 113.) Both applications alleged disability beginning on October 9, 2005, due to chronic back pain, arthritis of the back and hands, major depression, and Hepatitis C. (Id. at 116.) Both applications were denied on September 19, 2006. (Id. at 105.) Thornton then filed a timely request for a hearing on October 24, 2006. (Id. at 146.) On March 11, 2008, a hearing was held before ALJ Richard A. Kelly, at which Thornton was represented by counsel and testified on his own behalf. (Id. at 32, 113.) A medical expert and vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

On April 25, 2008, ALJ Kelly denied Thornton's applications for benefits. (Id. at 110.) Thornton subsequently sought review of the decision before the Appeals Council. (Id. at 128.) While the Appeals Council review was still pending, Thornton filed a second set of applications for SSDI and SSI, dated May 5, 2008. Both applications alleged disability beginning April 26, 2008, due to the same impairments alleged in his original applications. (Id. at 130.) These applications were granted on October 24, 2008. (Id. at 128.)

On August 18, 2009, the Appeals Council granted Thornton's review based on new material and evidence. (Id. at 128-30.) The Appeals Council also reopened the favorable determination of his May 5, 2008 applications, because it apparently conflicted with ALJ Kelly's April 25, 2008 denial of benefits, and the later favorable determination was not supported by "any specific clinical or laboratory findings." (Id. at 130.) Thornton's claims were combined and sent back to ALJ Kelly for a new, consolidated hearing. (Id. at 129.)

The second hearing was held on January 11, 2010. (Id. at 23.) Thornton testified on his own behalf and was represented by counsel. (Id.) A medical expert and a vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

On April 14, 2010, ALJ Kelly denied Thornton's claims. (Id. at 20.) ALJ Kelly's second decision incorporated by reference his first decision "as it related to all medical evidence prior to the amended alleged onset date." (Id. at 23.) Thornton sought review of the second decision on April 26, 2011. (Id. at 5-6.) On March 26, 2012, the Appeals Council denied his appeal. (Id. at 1.) ALJ Kelly's decision thus stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 592 (3d Cir.2001).

On May 11, 2012, Thornton commenced the instant action by filing a Complaint (ECF 3) requesting review of ALJ Kelly's decision. On August 31, 2012, Thornton filed a Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of Request for Review (ECF 8). On October 31, 2012, the Commissioner filed a Response (ECF 13) in opposition thereto. On November 12, 2012, Thornton filed a Reply in further support of his Request for Review (ECF 14).

B. The ALJ's Decision

In a written decision, ALJ Kelly denied Thornton's applications on the basis that he has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "medium work," and, although Thornton cannot perform all or substantially all of the requirements of medium work, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Thornton can perform. (Tr. at 23-31.)

1. RFC Assessment

The ALJ found that Thornton suffers from congenital central canal stenosis, and substance addiction, which is in remission -- medically determinable impairments that limit his ability to work and are, therefore, considered to be "severe" under the Social Security Regulations. ( Id. at 25.) The ALJ also determined that Thornton suffers from other impairments, including Hepatitis C, hypertension, and substance induced mood disorder. (Id.) However, according to the ALJ, these impairments are "non-severe" under the Social Security Regulations because they result in minimal, if any, limitation on his ability to work. (Id. at 25-26.)

In making his assessment, the ALJ found that Thornton's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause only some of [his] alleged symptoms; therefore, [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent that they are inconsistent with" a RFC for medium work. (Id. at 28.) Regarding Thornton's physical limitations, the ALJ did not fully credit:

1. Thornton's complaints of significant problems with standing, walking, sitting, lifting and carrying, overhead reaching, chronic pain in his back, neck, legs, and hands, as well as drowsiness from his medications (id. at 27, 79-90); or

2. A number assessments by treating and examining sources that document impairments of greater severity than those found by ALJ Kelly (e.g., ...


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