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Kreiter v. Astrue

March 23, 2010

LINDA LEE KREITER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nora Barry Fischer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Linda Lee Kreiter ("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 Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the record has been developed at the administrative level. (Docket Nos. [8], [13]). For the following reasons, the decision of the ALJ is not supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, the case is remanded for further administrative proceedings.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff protectively filed her application for SSI on March 21, 2006, alleging disability since January 1, 2006 due to bipolar disorder, arthritis in the back, depression, and panic attacks.*fn1 (R. 96-101, 122). Plaintiff's claim was denied at the initial level on September 12, 2006. (R. 77-81). She requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on November 8, 2006. (R. 83). A hearing was held on April 30, 2008. (R. 26-61). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and Plaintiff's social worker appeared and testified at the hearing. Id. Tanya Shuloh, a vocational expert, also testified. Id. On June 24, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 67-76). The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the decision of the Commissioner final in this case. (R. 1-3). Plaintiff now seeks review of that decision by this Court.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). Congress has clearly expressed its intention that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 522, 565, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988). As long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it cannot be set aside, even if this court "would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Haranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

In order to establish a disability under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate a "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents [her] from engaging in any 'substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs.,841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); 42 U.S.C. §423 (d)(1). A claimant is considered unable to engage in substantial gainful activity "only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. §423 (d)(2)(A).

An ALJ must do more than simply state factual conclusions to support his ultimate findings. Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d 309, 312-13 (3d Cir. 1974). The ALJ must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). Moreover, the ALJ must consider all medical evidence contained in the record and provide adequate explanations for disregarding or rejecting evidence. Weir on Behalf of Weir v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 955, 961 (3d Cir. 1984); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA"), acting pursuant to its rule making authority under 42 U.S.C. §405(a), has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court summarized this process as follows:

If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further. At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520 (b), 416.920 (b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment," defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(c), 415.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. [20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c).

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-5, 124 S.Ct. 176, 157 L.Ed. 2d 333 (2003)(footnotes omitted).

If the claimant is determined to be unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner (Step 5) to prove that, given plaintiff's mental or physical limitations, age, education, and work experience, he or she is able to perform substantial gainful activity in jobs available in the national economy. Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461; Stunkard, 842 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986).

IV. FACTS

A. General Background

Plaintiff was born on October 14, 1960, making her forty-eight years of age at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 117). A forty-eight year old is considered a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). Plaintiff completed the tenth grade, had training in cosmetology and is able to communicate in English. (R. 128). Plaintiff had previously been employed as a resident's aide for three months. (R. 123). Plaintiff avers January 1, 1996 as the onset of her disability. (R. 117).

B. Medical Background

Plaintiff claims to be disabled due to bipolar disorder, arthritis in her back, depression, and panic attacks. (R. 122). Plaintiff had two psychiatric hospitalizations in Illinois, once in 1995 and once in 1997, at which time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

(R. 154-155).*fn2

Plaintiff began treating with Dr. Gregory Dischman, a primary care physician, on August 24, 2004. (R. 316). Plaintiff reported suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) for which she had previously treated with Prevacid; lower back pain for which she had previously treated with Arthotec; and bipolar disorder for which she had previously treated with Dr. Levine who prescribed Wellbutrin and Depakote.*fn3 Id. Plaintiff expressed concerns about having sleep apnea. Dr. Dischman prescribed Prevacid for GERD, Arthotec for back pain, encouraged weight loss for obesity, and ordered a sleep study. (R. 317).

On September 9, 2004, Plaintiff had a follow-up with Dr. Dischman with complaints of back pain, wheezing, and fatigue. (R. 315). Plaintiff's maxillary sinuses were tender upon examination. Plaintiff was placed on Allegra*fn4, Advair*fn5, and Albuterol*fn6 for allergies and asthma and given Feldene for back pain. Id. It was recommended that she have a sleep study performed. Id. Plaintiff was next examined by Dr. Dischman on October 5, 2004 for continued problems with wheezing and asthma. (R. 314). Wheezing was noted on examination. Dr. Dischman assessed asthma and bronchitis and continued Albuterol. Id.

Plaintiff was involuntarily committed to Butler Memorial Hospital on October 7, 2004 pursuant to a petition filed by a man claiming to be her Amish cousin. (R. 218). Plaintiff reported moving to Pennsylvania after a breakup with her spouse to experience the Amish way of life. Id. Her cousin stated that she had been doing well and was active in church, but then began displaying very aggressive mood outbursts, anger, problems with jealousy, extreme lack of personal grooming and hygiene, abuse of prescription medications, and had fallen asleep on several occasions with a cigarette in hand and a propane stove lit. Id. Plaintiff reported that, in the past, she had experienced manic and depressed episodes, but was not experiencing episodes on admission. She did admit to prior hospitalizations, problems sleeping, sleeping with her cigarette lit, and treatment with various psychotropic medications in the past. Id. Plaintiff also reported significant emotional and physical abuse by her husband of eighteen years and her parents during childhood. She tested positive for opiates. (R. 218-219).

According to a mental status examination at admission, Plaintiff's mood was low with congruent affect, speech was spontaneous, speech content was positive for psychosocial stressors, and insight and judgment were limited. Dr. Hari Vemulapalli, a hospital psychiatrist, diagnosed mood disorder, NOS (not otherwise specified); history of bipolar disorder; and history of anxiety disorder. General medical conditions were noted as significant obesity, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hypertension, and sleep apnea. ...


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