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Strouse v. Astrue

March 19, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sánchez, J.


Plaintiff Graham Strouse seeks review of the Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner's denial of his claims for Social Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). This Court agrees with Strouse's second argument, alleging the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in failing to include all of Strouse's mental impairments in the hypothetical question posed to the Vocational Expert (VE). Strouse's remaining objections are without merit. Therefore, this Court approves and adopts the Report and Recommendation (Report) of United States Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa, and shall remand this case to the Commissioner.


Strouse filed an application for SSI and DIB on July 1, 2004, alleging disability since January 2, 2002, caused by depression, anxiety disorders, Asperger's syndrome, and aneurisms. On October 1, 2004, his SSI application was denied by the SSA. Strouse appealed, and an ALJ held a hearing on October 20, 2005. On January 26, 2006, the ALJ denied Strouse's claim. The Social Security Appeals Council denied Strouse's request for review on August 24, 2007. Strouse timely filed this action pursuant to42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the SSA's final decision. Pursuant to Local Rule of Civil Procedure 72.1(II)(a), this Court referred his appeal to United States Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa. In her Report, Judge Caracappa recommended remanding this case to the ALJ because of the ALJ's failure to include Strouse's moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace in the hypothetical question posed to the VE. Both Strouse and the Commissioner filed timely objections to the Report.

Strouse is a 36-year-old college graduate whose work history includes employment as a telemarketer, reporter, video store clerk, and as an automotive service clerk. Since January 2, 2002, the alleged disability onset date, Strouse has been admitted to several medical facilities and has been evaluated by multiple doctors and mental health professionals.

On January 17, 2002, Strouse was admitted to Sarasota Memorial Hospital for an accidental overdose after ingesting Sominex, a prescription sleeping aid. He was released the same day. Strouse was again admitted to Sarasota Memorial on March 27, 2003, for suicidal thoughts, drug abuse, and anxiety. On March 29, 2003, he was transferred to The Harbor Behavioral Care Institute for two days, where he was diagnosed with atypical bipolar disorder. Strouse received emergency care at Doylestown Hospital on August 27, 2003, for severe chronic depression, and he was noticeably intoxicated when he checked in to the hospital. Strouse was admitted to Doylestown Hospital again on September 4, 2003, for recurrent significant depression and abuse of benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety prescription medication. On both occasions, Strouse refused further inpatient treatment.

From September 4, 2003, to September 18, 2003, Strouse was hospitalized at the Horsham Clinic for social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and benzodiazepine abuse. While there, Strouse admitted he had been abusing benzodiazepine for approximately ten years. Strouse was subsequently hospitalized at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital from November 13, 2003, to November 24, 2003, where he was diagnosed as suffering from a developmental neuropsychiatric disorder, cognitive impairment with associated attentional problems, and abuse of the drugs ephedra and clonazepam. On December 4, 2003, doctors at the Lenape Valley Foundation Partial Hospital Program diagnosed Strouse with major depression, drug abuse, pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, and peripheral neuropathy. On April 15, 2004, Strouse received emergency treatment for an intentional overdose.

On September 24, 2004, the State Agency Medical Examiner, Dr. John Gavazzi, examined Strouse to consider whether he was able to perform meaningful work. Dr. Gavazzi concluded Strouse was able to meet the basic mental demands of competitive work on a sustained basis, despite limitations resulting from his mental impairments. On November 30, 2004, Dr. Christian Kohler, a psychiatrist for the University of Pennsylvania Health System, conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Strouse and found no evidence Strouse had depression or psychotic, suicidal, or homicidal thoughts. Instead, Dr. Kohler found Strouse had symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse and stimulant abuse exacerbated by a developmental disorder. Strouse was treated again in the emergency room for alcohol intoxication on January 21, 2005.


This Court exercises de novo review over the portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which the parties object. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). This Court is bound by the ALJ's factual findings to the extent those findings are supported by substantial record evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986)(citing Richardson v. Perales,402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence." Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). It is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson,402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

A person claiming entitlement to DIB or SSI must demonstrate he has a disability by producing evidence showing an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity if his physical or mental impairments "are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." § 423(d)(2)(A).

The SSA uses a five-step evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 546, 550 (3d Cir. 2004). A claimant is not considered disabled if:

(1) he is currently engaged in substantial gainful work activity; (2) he does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment which meets the duration requirement of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509; (3) he does not have an impairment that meets or equals one of those listed in Appendix 1 of Subpart P, 20 C.F.R. § 404; (4) if, despite this impairment, he can still do past relevant work, based on the Commissioner's assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity [RFC]; or (5) if, based on the Commissioner's assessment of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, the claimant can make an adjustment to perform other jobs available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the Commissioner cannot determine whether a claimant is disabled at any step, the Commissioner will proceed to the next step.

Ramirez, 372 F.3d at 550. After applying the five-step sequential evaluation process to Strouse's claim, the ALJ determined: (1) Strouse has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since January 2, 2002, his alleged disability onset date; (2) Strouse's anxiety, major depressive disorder, developmental disorder, benzodiazepine abuse, and stimulant abuse is "severe" based on the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c);*fn1 (3) Strouse's medically determinable impairments do not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. ยง 404, App. 1, Subpart P; (4) Strouse's residual functional capacity is limited to simple and routine one to two step tasks performed in a low-stress environment with limited contact with the public and co-workers; and (5) Strouse is unable to perform any past ...

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