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Searfoss v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2014



MALACHY E. MANNION, District Judge.

1. Introduction

Plaintiff Kenneth R. Searfoss has filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง405(g) seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Searfoss' claim for social security disability insurance benefits.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and "insured, " that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. Searfoss met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2011. Tr. 23, 135.[1]

Searfoss protectively filed his application for social security disability insurance benefits on March 17, 2010, claiming that he became disabled on May 23, 2008.[2] Tr. 58, 127. Searfoss has been diagnosed with degenerative disc and joint disease of the lumbar spine, blindness in the left eye, bilateral glaucoma, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and insomnia. Tr. 23-24. On October 4, 2010, Searfoss' application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination. Tr. 117.

On November 19, 2010, Searfoss requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Tr. 124. The ALJ conducted a hearing on January 25, 2012, where Searfoss was represented by an attorney. Tr. 50-114. On February 7, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Searfoss' application. Tr. 21-32. On July 31, 2013, the Appeals Council declined to grant review. Tr. 1. Searfoss subsequently filed a complaint before this Court on August 23, 2013, and this case became ripe for disposition on December 19, 2013, when Searfoss declined to file a reply brief. Searfoss' case will be evaluated as a whole to determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.[3] For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commission will be affirmed.

2. Statement of Relevant Facts

Searfoss was 46 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision, He has a tenth grade education, and is able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language. Tr. 143, 167, 169. Searfoss' past relevant work includes work as a car dealership shop foreman, which is classified as medium, skilled work, and as a backhoe loader, which is also classified as medium, skilled work. Tr. 108.

A. Searfoss' Vision Impairments

Searfoss lost all vision in his left eye when he was struck in that eye with an "ice ball" in February 2004. Tr. 275. On March 19, 2004, William McLaughlin, D.O. examined Searfoss and concluded that, though Searfoss had 20/20 vision in his right eye, he did not have any light perception in his left eye. Id . On March 24, 2004, an MRI was performed on Searfoss' brain. Tr. 552. The MRI findings were "compatible with a left retinal detachment with subretinal hemorrhage and vitreous hemorrhage" and a dislocation of the left eye lens. Id . Searfoss' eye impairment was accompanied by complaints of discomfort and headaches throughout 2004 and into 2006. Tr. 281, 283, 284, 287, 288. Surgery was never performed, and treatment was limited to medication in the form of eye drops. Tr. 56, 276.

On May 8, 2007, Searfoss presented to Erik Kruger, M.D. complaining of trouble urinating, and "wonder[ing] if it's related to eye-drops." Tr. 273. Dr. Kruger noted that Searfoss' "ocular exam [was] essentially stable" and opined that he "doubt[ed] that [Searfoss'] urinary symptoms are related to his drops..." Id . On August 8, 2008, Dr. McLaughlin noted that Searfoss was "not taking his Atropine" eye drops. Tr. 293.

On December 29, 2009, Searfoss presented to his treating physician, Salvatore Sparich, Jr., D.O. Tr. 313. Searfoss admitted that he had not "seen an eye doctor in some time and [had] not been using his eye drops." Tr. 315. Searfoss reported that he understood the risk of blindness accompanied by not using his eye drops. Id . Dr. Sparich noted that Searfoss had normal balance and a normal gait; he had no headaches and no eye pain. Tr. 314.

On January 7, 2010, Searfoss presented to Robert Kupsho, Jr., O.D., for an eye exam. Tr. 306-13. Dr. Kupsho diagnosed Searfoss with Glaucoma and noted that Searfoss had "some issues of non-compliance [with his] eye drops... [he] was taking 4 different drops, Alphagan P, Cosopt, Pred Forte and Atropine, but [had] not taken them for about 9 months to 1 year." Tr. 308, 311. On January 12, 2010, Jing Cheng Zhao, M.D. confirmed a diagnosis of bilateral "end stage 2 glaucoma without pain." Tr. 301. On September 8, 2011, vision in Searfoss' right eye remained 20/20, while he still had no light perception in his left eye. Tr. 593.

B. Searfoss' Lumbar Spine Impairments

Searfoss began visiting Mark Bell, M.D. with complaints of low back pain in May 2005. Tr. 222. Searfoss continued presenting to Dr. Bell throughout 2005 and into 2006 where he received, among other treatments, caudal epidural steroid injections and bilateral lumbar facet blocks. Tr. 224-239. A February 26, 2007 MRI of Searfoss' lumbar spine revealed "mild degenerative disc disease" at the L3-4 and L4-5 vertebrae levels. Tr. 220. However, the disc heights were well maintained, and there was no evidence of any annulus tear, disc bulge, disc herniation, or spinal stenosis. Id.

On April 29, 2008, Searfoss presented to Rhonda Todd, M.D. complaining of low back pain. Tr. 349-55. Searfoss reported that Naprosyn did not help with his back pain. Tr. 349. Searfoss' lower back was tender to palpation, as were his upper sacroiliac joints. Id . Dr. Todd ...

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