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James T. Baker v. Michael J. Astrue

October 24, 2011

JAMES T. BAKER,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge McHARGH

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This case is before the Magistrate Judge pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 13). The issue before the undersigned is whether the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying Plaintiff James Baker's applications for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423, and Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., is supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, conclusive.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court REVERSES the decision of the Commissioner and REMANDS the case back to the Social Security Administration.

I. INTRODUCTION & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On January 5, 2007, James Baker ("Plaintiff" or "Baker") protectively filed applications for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income alleging that he became disabled on August 23, 2002. (Tr. 115-16, 122-24). Baker's applications for benefits were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 60-63). He timely requested and was granted an administrative hearing. (Tr. 88-90).

On March 6, 2009, Administrative Law Judge Addison C. S. Masengill ("ALJ Masengill" or the "ALJ") conducted a hearing via video conference. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, and vocational expert, Maurice Demaris (the "VE") both testified at the proceeding. (Tr. 34-57). ALJ Masengill and the VE appeared in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Plaintiff and his counsel appeared in Mansfield, Ohio. (Tr. 26, 36). On March 27, 2009, ALJ Masengill issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. (Tr. 26-33). The ALJ's decision explained how he applied the five-step sequential evaluation,*fn1 and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id. Subsequently, Baker requested review of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. (Tr. 22). However, on May 27, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Baker's request, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff now seeks review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).*fn2

Plaintiff, born on August 11, 1957, was forty-seven years old on his alleged onset date, and considered as a younger person for Social Security purposes. (Tr. 171); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). Subsequently, upon turning fifty years old during the pendency of his appeal, Plaintiff changed age categories and is now considered as a person closely approaching advanced age. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). Baker has a twelfth grade education and prior experience working as a heating and air conditioning installer/servicer. (Tr. 38-39, 54). His date last insured for Disability Insurance benefits was June 30, 2007. (Tr. 171).

II. MEDICAL EVIDENCE*fn3

In December 2005, Baker underwent testing of his pulmonary function at Mansfield Hospital. (Tr. 235-38). The results showed that Plaintiff had moderate airflow obstruction and moderate hyperinflation in his lungs. (Tr. 236). Later, in May 2006 Plaintiff presented to physicians at Third Street Family Health Services ("TSFHS") complaining of a chest cold. (Tr. 218). Doctors there prescribed him Albuterol. Id.

Also in May 2006, Plaintiff began treatment for his left knee with Dr. Jay Guth, an orthopedic surgeon. (Tr.345). Baker told Dr. Guth that he had experienced problems with his knee, including pain and swelling, for the previous 20 years. Id. Upon examination, Dr. Guth diagnosed Plaintiff with arthritis in his left knee, primarily in his patella femoral, and injected medication into the area. Id.

Plaintiff next presented to Dr. Guth in July 2006 again complaining of problems with his left knee after performing work which required him to crawl on his hands and knees. Id. Dr. Guth was unable to perform magnetic resonance imaging ("MRI") testing on Baker due to Baker's insufficient medical insurance coverage, but the doctor recommended anti-imflammatories for Baker and gave him a prescription for Vicodin. Id. In August 2006, Baker presented to Dr. Guth regarding further swelling and pain in his knee. Id. Dr. Guth noted that the symptoms were activity related. Id. Dr. Guth informed Plaintiff that he could proceed with arthroscopic debridement surgery in his knee, but that he [Dr. Guth] did not feel that Plaintiff needed a total knee replacement. Id.

Baker went back to the physicians at TSFHS in October 2006. (Tr. 216). During the visit, Plaintiff was diagnosed with asthma and strongly advised to stop smoking. Id. On Baker's following appointment with TSFHS in January 2007, doctors noted that he suffered from shortness of breath, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD") and asthma. (Tr. 212). Plaintiff presented to TSFHS again one month later, at which time he was diagnosed with acute bronchitis. (Tr. 249).

On March 19, 2007, Dr. Sushil Sethi, performed a consultative examination of Plaintiff regarding his COPD, arthritis and swelling in his legs. (Tr. 259-61). Baker admitted to smoking between one and two packs of cigarettes a day. (Tr. 259-60). Dr. Sethi opined that Baker suffered from severe obstructive pulmonary disease, tobacco abuse, and chronic arthritic complaints in his knees. (Tr. 261). However, Dr. Sethi noted that Plaintiff's COPD showed excellent improvement with the use of bronchodilators. Ultimately, the doctor concluded that Plaintiff's impairments placed a moderate limitation on Baker's ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry and handle objects. Id.

Later in March 2007, state agency physician, Dr. Anton Freihofner, reviewed Plaintiff's file and completed a residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment of Baker's physical abilities. (Tr. 275-82). Dr. Freihofner opined that Baker retained the RFC to lift and carry up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. (Tr. 276). He also remarked that Plaintiff could stand, walk and sit for about six hours each workday. Id. The report indicated that Dr. Freihofner reviewed Dr. Guth's notes about Baker's knee prior to completing this assessment. Although Dr. Freihofner found that Baker's statements were consistent with the medical evidence, he noted that Baker's statements regarding the severity of his symptoms were not consistent with the record. (Tr. 280).

In May 2007, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Guth, completed a form for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services ("ODJFS"). In the report, Dr. Guth opined that Baker could "work with no restrictions." (Tr. 311). Dr. Guth issued this opinion in May 2007, but the form itself shows that Dr. Guth had not seen Plaintiff since August 21, 2006. Therefore, although Dr. Guth's opinion was dated in 2007, his opinion was based on his records from 2006.

In June 2007, Plaintiff's file was examined by two physicians who offered opinions conflicting with Dr. Guth's findings given to the ODJFS. First, consultative examiner, Dr. Mei-Chiew Lai, examined Plaintiff on June 1, 2007. (Tr. 316-19, 331-37). Dr. Lai indicated that Baker could lift no more than 20 pounds, and could stand, walk or sit for no more than a total of four hours in an eight hour workday, in 30 minute intervals. (Tr. 314). Additionally, Dr. Lai commented that Plaintiff required a sit/stand option, and could rarely or never climb, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl. (Tr. 315). Notably, Dr. Lai remarked that he did not expect Baker to return to work "even though he may be able to perform [a] ...


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