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Marchese v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

September 27, 2019

ANGEL LUIS MARCHESE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [*] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff has filed this action challenging certain portions of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security establishing plaintiffs entitlement to a closed period of disability for purposes of plaintiffs claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4l6(i) and 423, and 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq.. respectively. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         This court's review is limited to a determination as to whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion that plaintiff was under a disability from March 1, 2012 through September 25, 2014, but not thereafter. If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Laws v. Celebrezze. 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). "It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Hancock v. Astrue. 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, "the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high." Biestek v. Berrvhill. 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154(2019).

         The plaintiff, Angel Luis Marchese, was born on August 22, 1971. He did not graduate from high school but eventually earned a GED (Tr. 270). Mr. Marchese has been employed as a laborer and forklift operator. (Tr. 257). He last worked on a regular and sustained basis in 2011. (Tr. 48). On December 5, 2013, Mr. Marchese filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. In filing his current claims, Mr. Marchese alleged that he became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on March 1, 2011, due to lower back pain and arthritis in both hands. (Tr. 216, 269). At the time of an administrative hearing on March 8, 2017, plaintiff amended his applications so as to reflect an alleged disability onset date of March 1, 2012. (Tr. 58). Mr. Marchese maintains that he has remained disabled to the present time. With respect to his application for disability insurance benefits, the record reveals that Mr. Marchese met the insured status requirements of the Act at all relevant times covered by the final decision of the Commissioner. See generally 42 U.S.C. §§ 4l6(i) and 423(a).

         Mr. Marchese's applications were denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. He then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated May 3, 2017, the Law Judge ruled that Mr. Marchese was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment from March 1, 2012 through September 25, 2014, due primarily to right upper extremity impairments that precluded plaintiff from having effective use of his right, dominant hand for handling, fingering, or feeling. However, based on the treatment plaintiff received during that period, including right thumb and wrist surgeries, the Law Judge determined that plaintiff experienced medical improvement as of September 26, 2014, resulting in an increase in his residual functional capacity. The selected date of medical improvement coincided with a post-operative evaluation, at which Mr. Marchese reported to be "doing well" and was found to have "good motion of the digits" with only "minimal discomfort." (Tr. 26, 645).

         In his opinion, the Law Judge found that Mr. Marchese continues to suffer from the same severe impairments that were present from March 1, 2012 through September 25, 2014, namely, right hand and wrist osteoarthritis with corrective surgeries, obesity, and lumbago. (Tr. 18, 24). The Law Judge also found that plaintiff "subsequently developed the following additional 'severe' impairments: right trigger finger with corrective surgery, bilateral epicondylitis, and history of left shoulder impingement." (Tr. 24). However, the Law Judge determined that, despite such impairments, Mr. Marchese retained the capacity to perform a broader range of light work activity as of September 26, 2014. The Law Judge assessed plaintiffs residual capacity for the period beginning on that date as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, beginning on September 26, 2014, the claimant has had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he can never be exposed to hazards like hazardous machinery and unprotected heights; occasionally perform handling, fingering, and feeling with the right hand; and have occasional exposure to temperature extremes, wetness, humidity, and vibrations.

(Tr. 26). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge determined that Mr. Marchese remains unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (Tr. 33). However, the Law Judge found that since September 26, 2014, Mr. Marchese has possessed the capacity to perform other light work roles that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as the jobs of usher and counter clerk. (Tr. 33-34). Accordingly, the Law Judge concluded that plaintiffs disability ended on September 26, 2014, and that he has not become disabled again since that date. See generally 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(8) and 4l6.994(b)(5)(vii). Thus, the Law Judge ruled that Mr. Marchese was entitled to a closed period of disability from March 1, 2012 through September 25, 2014. (Tr. 34). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Mr. Marchese has now appealed to this court.

         While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff is disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2) and l382c(a). There are four elements of proof which must be considered in making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff. 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).

         After a review of the record in this case, the court is constrained to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Although Mr. Marchese has a history of musculoskeletal dysfunction, substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's determination that substantial medical improvement occurred as of September 26, 2014, and that Mr. Marchese has been able to perform certain light work roles since that date.

         The record reveals that between March 1, 2012 and October 31, 2013, Mr. Marchese underwent four surgical procedures on his dominant right hand and wrist. On March 22, 2012, plaintiff underwent a right thumb carpometacarpal (CMC) joint arthrodesis at Carilion Clinic's ambulatory surgery center. (Tr. 334-36). Plaintiffs orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Cay Mierisch, cleared him to return to work in August of 2012. (Tr. 519). Although plaintiff initially progressed well, he returned to Dr. Mierisch in April and May of 2013 with complaints of persistent pain that prevented him from working with his right hand. (Tr. 365, 529). On May 9, 2013, Dr. Mierisch removed surgical hardware and performed tendon tenolysis on two of plaintiffs right thumb tendons. (Tr. 368, 370, 402, 533, 1004). Following the procedure, Mr. Marchese continued to complain of persistent pain that was preventing him from working with his right hand. (Tr. 443-44). On October 28, 2013, Dr. Mierisch performed a right wrist arthroscopy with debridement of ligament tears and synovitis, including the radiocarpal and midcarpal joints. (Tr. 404). Over the next several months, plaintiff continued to complain of thumb and wrist pain. (Tr. 458-59. 462-65, 471). Consequently, on May 15, 2014, Dr. Mierisch performed a right thumb CMC suspension arthroplasty. (Tr. 556).

         Treatment notes reflect steady improvement in plaintiffs right hand symptoms following the May 15, 2014 procedure. In June of 2014, Mr. Marchese reported that he was doing well and that his pain was controlled with medications. (Tr. 578). On physical examination, plaintiff had "good range of motion of the digits" and "some discomfort. . . secondary to pain and swelling," which was noted to be "appropriate for this interval of healing." (Tr. 578-79). He was referred to occupational therapy for further treatment. In July of 2014, plaintiff reported continued improvement in his wrist pain, and was found to be "doing well post operatively." (Tr. 581-82). On September 26, 2014, Mr. Marchese was once again found to be "doing well post operatively." (Tr. 645). The examining clinician noted that plaintiffs pain was controlled with medications, and that he had "good motion of the digits with minimal discomfort" and "good opposition." (Tr. 645). The examination report also indicates that Mr. Marchese "state[d] that he has been working as a painter," but plaintiff denied doing so at the administrative hearing. (Tr. 645). Ultimately, plaintiff was advised to continue taking Mobic, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, and to continue with range of motion and strengthening exercises. (Tr. 645).

         On November 18, 2014, Mr. Marchese presented to Dr. Ayesha Nazli at New Horizons Healthcare with complaints of pain in his left upper arm. Plaintiff reported that he had been "helping [his] uncle . . . move" and had "probably . . . sprained his arm." (Tr. 675). An examination of plaintiff s left arm and shoulder revealed no swelling or redness, and he was found to have full range of motion without pain. (Tr. 675). Dr. Nazli diagnosed plaintiff with a sprain and continued his existing medications.

         On November 25, 2014, Mr. Marchese returned to Dr. Mierisch for a follow-up appointment. Plaintiff reported that that he continued to experience pain in bis right thumb, and that he could not do any "heavy gripping" or "resume his work as a demolitionist." (Tr. 878). On physical examination, Mr. Marchese was found to have "good motion of the digits with minimal discomfort," "good opposition," and "appropriately" continued weakness. (Tr. 878). An x-ray of plaintiff s right thumb showed that the arthroplasty was intact and revealed only mild arthropathy (joint disease). (Tr. 878, 954). Dr. Mierisch noted that any persistent pain and weakness may ...


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