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Farley v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 2, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

A. Introduction

In this action, we are presented with Joseph Farley's appeal of an adverse decision rendered by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), finding that he was not fully disabled, and, therefore, denying his application for Social Security disability benefits.

Joseph Farley ("Farley" or the "plaintiff") filed an application for disability benefits on March 22, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of July 4, 2005. The claim was denied initially on August 4, 2010. Thereafter, Farley requested a hearing. Michelle Wolff, an ALJ, presided over a hearing in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on July 19, 2011, during which the plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. Following that hearing, and a thorough review of the medical evidence of record, the ALJ found that Farley was not disabled under section 216(I) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Accordingly, the ALJ issued a written decision on August 8, 2011, denying Mr. Farley's application for disability benefits. Farley then initiated the instant action on April 5, 2013, urging the Court to set aside the ALJ's decision and remand this matter to the Commissioner for further consideration. (Doc. 1.)

Following our review of the record, including the ALJ's decision and the evidence that was before her, for the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence which is adequately explained on the record and, therefore, this decision will be affirmed.

B. Farley's Medical and Employment History

The plaintiff last met the insured status requirements for disability insurance benefits (DIB) on June 30, 2009. (Tr. 113.) As of that date he was 52 years old. (Tr. 93.)

Farley completed two years of college and holds an Associate's degree in business. (Tr. 34.) He spent 13 years in the Navy before being honorably discharged, apparently on the basis of a personality disorder. (Tr. 34, 90, 376.) Farley has past work experience as an assembly line worker, which is considered light-semi-skilled work; and as both a production manager and assistant manager, which are light, skilled positions. (Tr. 55-56, 116.) The plaintiff claims that he left his most recent job as an assistant manager in a food market because of difficulties from a seizure disorder; notably, however, it does not appear that Farley has ever been diagnosed with such a disorder.[1] (Tr. 35-36.) In addition to the foregoing work, Farley has experience as a carpenter, and testified that he has continued to do some limited carpentry and related consulting work since leaving his last job. (Tr. 55-56.)

The plaintiff has been married for 23 years and lives with his wife and adult daughter. (Tr. 32, 145, 376.) He has other grown children residing in Williamsport and Pittsburgh, as well as children from another relationship whom claims are estranged from him. (Tr. 32.) He testified that he cares for his grandchildren as often as four days a week, and he and his wife socialize with friends in their home at least once per week. (Tr. 45-46, 376.) The plaintiff also testified that he drives short distances, shops, cooks, does laundry and light housework, uses a computer, and cares for his personal needs. (Tr. 33, 47, 164, 376.) In addition, evidence in the record indicated that during the period the plaintiff claims to have been totally disabled he walked up to three miles per day with "no problems or concerns" in an effort to lose weight, and did "hard physical work" without a problem. (Tr. 269, 376.) Although Farley represented that his numerous ailments rendered him unable to work, he continued to do some construction work and to help family and friends with carpentry during the period of claimed disability. (Tr. 34-35, 196, 232, 269, 277.)

C. The Plaintiff's Alleged Physical and Mental Impairments

1. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

On February 7, 2005, the plaintiff sought treatment for right elbow pain and numbness in his right hand. (Tr. 263.) The plaintiff was seen by Jeffrey Braun, M.D. at Grampian Hills Family Medicine. (Tr. 263.) During that visit, Dr. Braun observed a lump on the plaintiff's forearm, but otherwise noted that the plaintiff was not in distress and appeared to have a full range of motion with his arm and hand. (Tr. 264.) In November 2005, it was confirmed that the plaintiff had carpal tunnel syndrome in his right wrist, though he was getting relief from using a splint. (Tr. 266.)

The plaintiff underwent endoscopic surgery on his right hand in February 2006. (Tr. 188.) Within a month, the plaintiff had healed, and reported having sensation in his hands, a reasonable range of motion in his fingers, and excellent grip strength. (Tr. 191-92.) The surgeon recommended that the plaintiff return to normal daily activities on March 30, 2006. (Tr. 192.)

Several years later, the plaintiff began experiencing pain in his left hand. As a result, the plaintiff underwent surgery on August 31, 2009. During that surgery, Hani Tuffaha, M.D. performed median nerve decompression surgery on the plaintiff's left wrist and observed that the plaintiff tolerated the surgery well. (Tr. 223-24, 345-46.) Other notes indicate, however, that the plaintiff has lost sensation in his left hand, and that such loss may be permanent. (Tr. 443.) Notably, however, the information about the plaintiff's ongoing left wrist trouble falls more than a year after his date last insured. Thus, on September 2, 2010, the plaintiff began treating with a Dr. Giordano at Grampian Hills, where the plaintiff had been treated for his right wrist pain. At that time the plaintiff was advised to see Dr. Tuffaha, his surgeon, to discuss the loss of sensation he claimed to be experiencing. However, the record indicates that the plaintiff did not see Dr. Tuffaha again and Dr. Giordano did not note any other complaints from the plaintiff about his left hand during any follow-up visits.[2] (Tr. 443-448.)

2. Tinnitus

In addition, the plaintiff claims to be troubled by tinnitus, or a ringing in his ears. On April 12, 2006, the plaintiff saw Timothy McCloskey, D.O. for an allergy appointment, but denied having problems with his ears. (Tr. 196.) The record is somewhat equivocal regarding the extent of the plaintiff's hearing difficulty, though he was diagnosed in March 22, 2009, with noise induced high-frequency hearing loss and associated tinnitus. (Tr. 306-07.) Even with that diagnosis, however, the medical evidence provided little support for the plaintiff's claim that his tinnitus was disabling. Thus, in April 2006, the plaintiff's auditory canals were found to be normal, as was his hearing. (Tr. 197.) Nearly three years later, in February 2009, the plaintiff underwent an MRI of his brain after he was complaining of ringing in his ears. (Tr. 255.) This MRI revealed normal findings. (Tr. 255.) On March 16, 2009, the plaintiff was referred to Joel D'Hue, M.D., an otolaryngologist. (Tr. 306.) Dr. D'Hue found the plaintiff's ear-nose-and-throat (ENT) examination to be "entirely unremarkable." (Tr. 306.) Dr. D'Hue conducted a hearing test on March 22, 2009, and at that time diagnosed tinnitus. (Tr. 306.) Other readings taken during this examination were found to be normal. (Tr. 307.) Dr. D'Hue recommended that the plaintiff take vitamin B, and suggested that at some point he might need auditory amplification, but that it would be some time before this would be necessary. (Tr. 307.) In April 2010, the plaintiff's primary care doctor confirmed the plaintiff had tinnitus, but otherwise found that the plaintiff's hearing was "grossly intact" and his tympanic membranes were normal. (Tr. 232-33.) The plaintiff's hearing was found to be normal during all follow-up visits. (Tr. 225-298.)

3. Alleged Seizure Disorder

In addition to carpal tunnel syndrome and tinnitus, the plaintiff also claimed to suffer from a seizure disorder that would cause him to suffer episodic seizures during which he would "zone out" for several minutes at a time. The medical evidence, however, provides little in the way of direct support for this claim. The plaintiff voluntarily stopped working in 2005, claiming that his seizures were interfering with his ability to perform his job. (Tr. 35.) The plaintiff's primary care physician, Dr. Tanner, referred the plaintiff to a "Dr. Yanofsky" for an evaluation, but the record is devoid of medical records from Dr. Yanofsky, and we can find little evidence that the plaintiff actually sought treatment for his alleged seizures. There is evidence that in May 2007, the plaintiff told Dr. Tanner that he had seen Dr. Yanofsky and had been prescribed some unidentified medication, but then discontinued using it because he did not like the side effects it caused. (Tr. 277.) During this visit, Dr. Tanner found that the plaintiff's neurological examination was normal, and the plaintiff denied having a history of dizziness, seizures, loss of function or sensation. (Tr. 278.) Furthermore, the plaintiff told the ALJ that he was no longer pursuing treatment for the alleged seizures. (Tr. 37.)

4. Back Pain

The plaintiff also suffers from back pain due to degenerative disc disease and retrolisthesis. Nevertheless, in April 2006, less than a year after he had stopped working, the plaintiff was examined by Dr. Timothy McCloskey and reported that he felt good and was actually working as a self-employed carpenter. (Tr. 195.) During this appointment, the plaintiff denied having musculoskeletal issues, and he had a normal gait. (Tr. 196-97.) Two months later, on June 25, 2007, the plaintiff again told Dr. McCloskey that he was not experiencing significant joint or muscle pain. (Tr. 198.)

In early 2008, however, the plaintiff had an x-ray of his lumbar spine and was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and retrolisthesis at L5-S1. (Tr. 254.) Dr. Tanner, the plaintiff's primary care doctor, recommended that he pursue physical therapy. (Tr. 254.) On May 4, 2009, the plaintiff had a follow-up MRI, which revealed posterior disc bulge with slight narrowing of the foramina bilaterally at L5-S1 and degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 256.) However, no significant ...

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