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Podsiedlak v. Barnhart

March 31, 2010

JOSEPH STANLEY PODSIEDLAK
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART



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

MEMORANDUM

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Joseph Stanley Podsiedlak asks this Court to review the denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Podsiedlak claims he is disabled as a result of anxiety and pain in his knee, hand, and wrist. Podsiedlak asserts the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision denying him benefits was not supported by substantial evidence. After reviewing the administrative record, United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey issued a Report and Recommendation (Report), proposing this matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. The Commissioner objected to the Report, asserting the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. This Court disagrees. Accordingly, this Court adopts in part Magistrate Judge Hey's recommendation and remands this matter to the Commissioner.

FACTS

Podsiedlak alleges he has been disabled since December 15, 2002, when he was 43 years old.

He is 6'2" tall and weighs 279 pounds. He holds an associate's degree in management. His relevant past work experience includes work as a warehouseman, plant foreman, machine assembler, and demolition crewman.

Podsiedlak claims he is disabled by osteoarthritis, a thyroid condition, anemia, anxiety, and hand, wrist, knee, leg, and back pain. His application for DIB and SSI, filed on September 10, 2004, was denied. At an administrative hearing on February 24, 2006, the ALJ concluded Podsiedlak was not disabled. On April 7, 2006, the Social Security Administration Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ for further consideration. The ALJ held a second hearing on April 24, 2007.

On remand from the Appeals Council, the medical record before the ALJ included treatment notes from three of Podsiedlak's treating physicians -- general practitioners Maureen Keller, M.D., who treated him from November 2003 to October 2004, and Melanie Williams, D.O., who treated him from August 2005 to March 2007, and orthopedist Bruce Vanett, M.D., who treated Podsiedlak from 2003 to 2004. Dr. Williams completed two Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessments, in which she concluded Podsiedlak was unable to perform even sedentary work on a regular and continuous basis. The record also included results of an MRI performed on Podsiedlak's knee on April 28, 2003, and an x-ray performed during a hospital visit he made in September 2005 because of knee pain and swelling. The record contained additional treatment notes from specialists to which Dr. Williams referred Podsiedlak, including orthopedic surgeon E. Balasubramanian, M.D.; rheumatologists Rhashmi Khandilkar, M.D., and Primal Kaur, M.D.; and pulmonologist Wissam Chatila, M.D.

The record also contained assessments conducted by medical consultants for the Commissioner. Gerald Gryczko, M.D., completed an RFC in November 2004, and concluded Podsiedlak could perform light work activities, including occasionally lifting and carrying 20 pounds, frequently lifting and carrying 10 pounds, and standing, walking, or sitting for six hours at a time. J.J. Kowalski, M.D., completed a Psychiatric Review Technique Form (PRTF). Dr. Kowalski concluded Podsiedlak suffered from an anxiety disorder which imposed only mild limitations on his daily life and did not constitute a severe mental impairment. The record also included a vocational expert's (VE) testimony that Podsiedlak could perform sedentary work, such as hand packaging or small parts assembly.

On June 4, 2007, after a second hearing, the ALJ again concluded Podsiedlak was not disabled. On October 29, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Podsiedlak's request for review. Podsiedlak subsequently filed the instant action, seeking review of the ALJ's second denial of DIB and SSI.After reviewing the administrative record, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey recommended this matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration of Podsiedlak's claims of disability due to anxiety, hand, wrist, and knee pain, and obesity. The Commissioner filed timely objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation.

DISCUSSION

This Court reviews de novo the Commissioner's objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). The Court is bound by the ALJ's factual findings as long as they 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) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence consists of "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

The ALJ must consider all of the evidence presented and provide reasons for discounting any rejected evidence. Stewart v. Sec'y of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). When there is conflicting testimony, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but "cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason." Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1187 (3d Cir. 1992) (stating an ALJ may reject conflicting medical evidence).

To qualify for DIB or SSI benefits, a claimant must demonstrate 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). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step evaluation:

First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, then the Commissioner considers in the second step whether the claimant has a 'severe impairment' that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. If the claimant suffers a severe impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based on the medical evidence, the impairment meets the criteria of an impairment listed in the 'listing of impairments,' 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (1999), which result in a presumption of disability, or whether the claimant retains the capacity to work. If the impairment does not meet the criteria for a listed impairment, then the Commissioner assesses in the fourth step whether, despite the severe impairment, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. If the claimant cannot perform his past work, then the final step ...


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