United States District Court, D. Connecticut
JOSEPH J. MESSINA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND
THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE
Vanessa L. Bryant, United States District Judge
an administrative appeal following the denial of the
Plaintiff, Joseph Messina's, application for disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”). It is brought
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g).
Messina (“Plaintiff” or “Messina”)
has moved for an order reversing the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”), or remanding the case for
rehearing. [Dkt. No. 15.] The Commissioner, in turn, has
moved for an order affirming the decision. [Dkt. No. 16.]
following reasons, Messina's Motion for an Order
Reversing or Remanding the Commissioner's Decision [Dkt.
No. 15] is DENIED, and the Commissioner's Motion to
Affirm that Decision [Dkt. No. 16] is GRANTED.
following facts are taken from the parties' Joint
Stipulation of Facts (“Joint Stipulation”) [Dkt.
No. 21] unless otherwise indicated.
was born in 1968. [Dkt. No. 21 at 43.] He graduated from
college with a degree in accounting. Id. He worked
as an accountant for four years and stopped because the
“very professional environment . . . wasn't the
environment [he] felt comfortable in.” [Dkt. No. 7-3 at
32-33.] Messina then opened and ran a restaurant from 2006 to
May 10, 2008, the alleged onset date of his disability. [Dkt.
No. 21 at 43.] He was last insured on December 31,
2008. Id. On July 30, 2012, Messina
applied for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance
Benefits. [Dkt. No. 7-6 at 157]. On September 12, 2012, a
disability adjudicator in the Social Security Administration
denied his initial request for disability benefits and
thereafter denied his request for reconsideration. [Dkt. No.
7-5 at 69-73.]
6, 2014, Messina appeared (with counsel) for a hearing before
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [Dkt. No.
7-3 at 27.] On June 9, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision
denying benefits. Id. at 7. On September 30, 2015,
the appeals council denied Messina's request for review
of that decision thereby making the ALJ's decision the
final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1. This
Plaintiff's Medical History
Messina's automobile accidents and early medical
was involved in an automobile accident on May 10, 2008,
was transported via emergency helicopter to Hartford
Hospital. [Dkt. No. 21 at 1; Dkt. No. 7-8 at 548.] The
emergency trauma team diagnosed Messina with left radial
ulnar dislocation, rib fractures, pulmonary contusion,
possible splenic kidney laceration, fixed fracture, left
elbow dislocation, and thoracic spine tenderness.
Id. The trauma team also found Messina was
12, 2008, Dr. Evan Fox, a hospital psychiatrist, evaluated
Messina's mental health. [Id. at 3; Dkt. No. 7-8
at 556.] Messina told Dr. Fox he experienced mood
fluctuations and depression. Id. Messina denied
suicidal ideation and stated his anxiety was relieved with
medication prescribed by Dr. Timothy Fignar, his primary care
physician, as well as marijuana and alcohol. Id. Dr.
Fox noted Messina seemed agitated and angry, but that his
thought processes were logical and coherent. Id.
was discharged on May 13, 2008 with prescriptions for pain
medications, muscle relaxers and antidepressants. [Dkt. No.
21 at 3; Dkt. No. 7-8 at 571-575.]
met with Dr. Fignar on May 16 and again on May 30, 2008.
[Dkt. No. 7-8 at 363, 368.] Dr. Fignar gave Messina a mental
health screening questionnaire which suggested a likely
bipolar diagnosis and suggested Messina see a psychiatrist.
Id. at 363. Dr. Fignar also offered Messina a
handout discussing depression, instructed him to exercise and
avoid depressants including alcohol, and adjusted
Messina's anxiety medication. Id.
orthopedist, Dr. Robert Belniak, examined Messina on June 3,
2008. [Dkt. No. 21 at 5; Dkt. No. 7-8 at 282.] Dr. Belniak
found Messina experienced a 20 degree extension loss in his
elbow, some chronic low back pain with radiation to the lower
leg, and some impingement symptoms in his left shoulder,
although an X ray of Messina's shoulder was normal. [Dkt.
No. 7-8 at 282.] Dr. Belniak prescribed an anti-inflammatory
and physical therapy. Id. Messina benefitted from
physical therapy, and when he saw Dr. Belniak on July 1,
2008, his left shoulder and left elbow had improved.
Id. at 281. However, Messina's lower back pain
continued. Id. Dr. Belniak referred him to a spine
specialist and prescribed him Vicodin. Id.
July 1, 2008, Messina was in a motorcycle accident. [Dkt. No.
7-8 at 368.] He was admitted to New Britain Hospital, where
x-rays revealed several fractures, although the physician
could not fully discern which were caused by his May 2008
accident rather than his July 2008 accident. Id.
Messina complained of pain, swelling, redness, numbness,
weakness, and difficulty breathing. Id. Messina was
prescribed an anti-inflammatory and a pain reliever.
Id. After his July 2008 accident, Messina saw a
number of physicians for shoulder pain, mental health, and
lower back pain. Messina's medical history pertaining to
each condition is discussed in turn below.
Messina's Shoulder Pain
25, 2008, an MRI revealed a tear of the anterior superior
glenoid labrum in his right shoulder. [Dkt. No. 21 at 10;
Dkt. No. 7-8 at 266.] On October 22, 2008, Dr. Belniak
performed an arthroscopic labral reconstruction operation to
repair the tear. [Dkt. No. 21 at 13; Dkt. No. 7-8 at 289-90.]
One week after his surgery, on October 28, Messina reported
“the previous pain he was having [in his right
shoulder] is gone.” [Dkt. No. 7-8 at 277.] Dr. Belniak
noted Messina was “able to move the shoulder without
much discomfort” and instructed Messina to practice
“gentle range of motion exercises.” Id.
November 18, 2008, Dr. Belniak found Messina had “good
early range of motion of his shoulder with minimal pain under
shoulder level.” [Dkt. No. 7-8 at 276.] Dr. Belniak
prescribed physical therapy and restricted Messina from heavy
December 16, 2008, Dr. Belniak found Messina had full
overhead range of motion and would “gradually resume
his normal activities.” [Dkt. No. 7-8 at 275.] Messina
reported his “pain has largely gone away.”
Messina's Mental Health
August 1, 2008, Messina returned to Dr. Fignar for continued
mental health treatment. [Dkt. No. 7-8 at 370.] Messina
reported his “feelings of being up and down [were]
mostly resolved with treatment” and he was
“finding enjoyment in life in general and [had] no
further disturbances in sleep or appetite [and] denie[d]
suicidal ideation.” Id. Dr. Fignar instructed
Messina to continue exercising and avoiding “alcohol
and other depressing drugs, ” and made no adjustments to
his mental health medications. Id.
the remainder of the relevant time period, Messina routinely
reported no depression or only mild symptoms. [See,
e.g., Dkt. No. 7-8 at 372 (September 23, 2008 report to
Dr. Fignar that Messina's antipsychotic medication was
working well); id. at 231 (December 1, 2008 medical
notes from Dr. Patel, Messina's pain management
specialist, recording Messina's depression level at two
out of ten); id. at 376 (December 16, 2008, medical
notes from Dr. Fignar indicating Messina's
“excellent response” to his antipsychotic
Messina's Spine Condition
16, 2008, Messina saw an interventional pain management
physician, Dr. Roshni N. Patel, who found Messina had
radiculopathy affecting his left leg, limited mobility, mild
tenderness and spasms in his lower back. [Dkt. No. 21 at 7;
Dkt. No. 7-8 at 253-58.] Dr. Patel advised Messina to attend
physical therapy for sciatica, continue taking pain
medication prescribed by Dr. Fignar, and use a local
anesthetic targeting his rib fracture pain. Id. Dr.
Patel's treatment improved Messina's sciatica. [Dkt.
No. 7-8 at 280.] By July 29, Messina experienced intermittent
sharp pains that were worse when bending, but overall
experienced a “good benefit” from physical
therapy. Id. at 251.
18, 2008, Messina met with Dr. Robert Pepperman, a physical
medicine and rehabilitation specialist. [Dkt. No. 21 at 8;
Dkt. No. 7-8 at 291-92.] Dr. Pepperman conducted an
electrodiagnostic study of Messina's lower limbs, which
revealed normal results inconsistent with peripheral
neuropathy or lumbar radiculopathy or myopathy. [Dkt. No. 7-8
at 292.] Dr. Pepperman denied Messina's request for a
prescription for Percocet, finding it medically unnecessary.
29, 2008, Dr. Patel examined Messina and found no limitation
in his range of motion due to radioculopathy, no motor
weakness or sensory loss, the ability to raise his right leg
more than 60 degrees and his left leg 40 degrees. [Dkt. No.
21 at 11; Dkt. No. 7-8 at 252.] Dr. Patel prescribed
additional numbing patches to treat his chest pain.
October 30, 2008, Dr. Patel examined Messina and reported
limited range of motion due to radiculopathy, moderate
tenderness, and mild sensory loss. [Dkt. No. 7-8 at 245.] On
November 4, 2008, Dr. Patel treated Messina's sciatica
with epidural steroid injections. Id. at 244, 246.
November 3, 2008, Messina had an MRI of his lumbar spine
which revealed normal alignment, degenerative disc disease,
and degenerative facet hypertrophy (degeneration of joints
along the back of the spine). [Dkt. No. 21 at 16; Dkt. No.
7-8 at 228-30.]
November 12, 2008, one week after his epidural steroid
injections, Messina reported a pain level of five, decreased
from seven. [Dkt. No. 7-8 at 236.] Messina reported sciatic
pain in his left buttock and left leg occurring for one to
two hours every morning. Id. Messina stated his pain
was managed with Vicodin. Id. Dr. Patel examined
Messina and found a limited range of motion due to his
radiculopathy, mild tenderness and spasms, and improved
ability to raise his leg. Id. at 237. Dr. Patel
prescribed physical therapy and an anti-inflammatory.
Id. On November 18, 2008, Dr. Patel administered
additional epidural steroid injections. [Dkt. No. 21 at 20;
Dkt. No. 7-8 at 235.]
December 1, 2008, Dr. Patel recorded Messina's sciatic
pain level between eight and ten out of ten. [Dkt. No. 21 at
21; Dkt. No. 7-8 at 231.] Dr. Patel noted Messina's
continued limited range of motion due to radiculopathy,
moderate tenderness and spasms, mild sensory loss, and
ability to raise his left leg 40 degrees. Id. at
232. Overall, Dr. Patel found Messina's performance was
consistent with normal activity with effort and some signs or
symptoms of disease. Id. at 233. Dr. Patel referred
Messina to Dr. William H. Druckemiller, a spine and
neurological surgery specialist. Id.
December 12, 2008, Dr. Druckemiller evaluated Messina and
noted he had symptoms consistent with “radiculopathy
that has partially cleared.” [Dkt. No. 261.] He
instructed Messina to start a back exercise program and noted
that if Messina failed to improve, “surgery might
become a consideration.” Id. at 262.
Messina's medical history after the relevant time
Fignar continued prescribing Messina pain medications, muscle
relaxants, and anti-inflammatories after December 31, 2008,
the close of the relevant time period. [Dkt. No. 21 at 27-28;
see also, e.g., Dkt. No. 7-8 at 396 (pain medication
prescribed for left leg and back pain February 2009); 408
(muscle relaxer prescribed for left leg and back pain August
2009); 415 (pain medication prescribed for back and shoulder
pain December 2009); 442 (pain medication prescribed for back
pain February 2010); 451 (pain medication prescribed for back
pain May 2010); 506 (pain medication prescribed for back pain
January 2011); 544 (pain medication prescribed for back pain
July 2012); 647 (pain medication prescribed for
“chronic pain” May 2013).] Dr. Fignar prescribed
Messina pain medication sixty-seven times in the five and
two-half year period between January 2009 and March 2014.
[Dkt. No. 21 at 27-28; Dkt. No. 7-8 at 391-99; 401-02, 405,
407, 409-10, 415, 440, 442, 444, 447, 450-51, 453, 455-57,
461-62, 506, 508-09, 511-13, 515, 517, 520-21, 523, 525, 527,
531, 534-36, 542-43, 547, 635, 637, 640, 643-44, 646-47, 650,
652-54, 676-78, 680-82.]
February 4, 2010, Messina complained of persistent knee pain
“since his accident a year and a half ago, which has
gotten much worse on the right side recently.” [Dkt.
No. 7-8 at 274.] On March 1, 2010, Dr. Belniak operated on
Messina's right knee, repairing a tear of the lateral
meniscus. Id. at 287. On March 9, 2010, Messina
reported his right knee pain had subsided. Id. at
272. A postoperative exam revealed Messina's range of
motion was good, neurovascular condition was normal, and the
incision site looked healthy. Id.
January 5, 2011, Messina reported left-side knee pain that
felt “identical to the pain he experienced when he had
his right meniscal tear taken care of.” Id. at
271. On January 19, 2011, Dr. Belniak operated on
Messina's left knee to repair a large tear in his medial
meniscus. Id. at 287. On January 28, 2011, Messina
reported his left knee pain was gone. Id. at 270. A