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Lambert v. Astrue

February 19, 2009

TAMMY J. LAMBERT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge

Electronically Filed

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Tammy J. Lambert ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). Consistent with the customary practice in the Western District of Pennsylvania, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the record developed during the administrative proceedings. Doc. Nos. 10 & 12.

After careful consideration of the Commissioner's decision, the memoranda of the parties, and the entire record, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision must be vacated, and that the case must be remanded for further administrative proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of § 405(g). Therefore, the Court will deny the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment insofar as it seeks an award of benefits, grant Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment insofar as it seeks a remand for further administrative proceedings, and remand the case for further proceedings before the Commissioner.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on July 18, 2005, alleging disability as of December 24, 2004, due to depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, fibromyalgia, bilateral hip arthritis, Lyme disease, bursitis, Barrett's esophagitis, and degenerative disc disease. R. 16, 41-45, 57-58, 396-398. Her SSI application was apparently denied on October 26, 2005, because of her failure to supply evidence, but it was subsequently reopened on November 16, 2005, pursuant to a renewed SSI application which included the evidence which had previously been omitted. R. 16. Both the DIB and SSI applications were processed with the concurrent filing date of July 18, 2005. Id. The claims were initially denied on February 27, 2006. R. 34, 400. Plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing on April 3, 2006. R. 39. On November 21, 2006, a hearing was held in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge Patricia Henry (the "ALJ"). R. 410. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 414-441. Mark Heckman ("Heckman"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 441-444.

In a decision dated December 27, 2006, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims for DIB and SSI. R. 13-26. After noting that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, the ALJ observed that Plaintiff suffered from degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, fibromyalgia, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, Lyme disease, Barrett's esophagitis and substance abuse. R. 19. Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, fibromyalgia, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder were deemed to be "severe" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). Id. Her Lyme disease, Barrett's esophagitis and substance abuse were not deemed to be severe. Id. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listing of Impairments"). Id. In accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945, the ALJ made the following determination with respect to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to engage in a range of light work, as that term is defined in the regulations, that is limited to no more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks, not performed in a fast-paced production environment; involves only simple, work related decisions; in general, relatively few work place changes; and is limited to occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers or the public.

Id. At the time of the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff was forty-four years old, making her a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563 and 416.963. R. 24. She had the equivalent of a high school education and was able to communicate in English.*fn1 Id. Based on the applicable vocational and residual functional capacity assessments, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work as a receptionist, cabinet maker, waitress, carpenter, laborer or telemarketer. Id. Nevertheless, it was determined that Plaintiff could work as a routing clerk, a coupon redemption clerk, a patch worker, a charge account clerk, an ampule sealer, or a nut sorter. R. 25. Heckman's testimony established that these jobs existed in the national economy for purposes of 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B). R. 442-444. Hence, Plaintiff was not found to be "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. Id.

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 26, 2008, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 6. Plaintiff commenced this action on May 15, 2008, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Doc. No. 1. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on October 15, 2008. Doc. Nos. 10 & 12. These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. Statement of the Case

In her decision, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2009.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 24, 2004, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).

3. The claimant has the following medically determinable "severe" impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, fibromyalgia, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. The claimant's substance abuse, in early remission; Lyme disease and Barrett's esophagitis are not "severe" (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).

4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments in Listings 1.00 Musculoskeletal System or 12.00 Mental Disorders, or any other impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).

5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to engage in a range of light work, as that term is defined in the regulations, that is limited to no more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks, not performed in a fast-paced production environment; involves only simple, work related decisions; in general, relatively few work place changes; and is limited to occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers or the public.

6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).

7. The claimant was born on September 6, 1962 and was 42 years of age on December 24, 2004. She is currently 44 years of age. This is defined as a younger individual (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).

8. The claimant has a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).

9. The claimant does not have any skills that could be transferred to other types of work within her residual functional capacity (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).

10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.960(c), and 416.966).

11. The claimant has not been under a "disability," as defined in the Social Security Act, from December 24, 2004 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

R. 18-25. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in determining that her impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment found in the Listing of Impairments, that the ALJ erred in determining that her Lyme disease and Barrett's esophagitis were not severe impairments, that the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment was not supported by substantial evidence, and that the Commissioner did not meet his burden of establishing the existence of jobs in the national economy consistent with the applicable vocational and residual functional capacity assessments.

IV. Standards of Review

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)*fn2 and 1383(c)(3)*fn3 . Section 405(g) permits a district court to review transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based. Because the standards for eligibility under Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, regarding Disability Insurance Benefits, or "DIB"), and judicial review thereof, are virtually identical to the standards under Title XVI (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f, regarding Supplemental Security Income, or "SSI"), regulations and decisions rendered under the Title II disability standard, 42 U.S.C. § 423, are pertinent and ...


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