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Soli v. Astrue

July 22, 2010

LOIS A. SOLI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yohn, J.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff, Lois A. Soli, appeals the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (the "Act"). After briefing on plaintiff's request for review was completed, I referred the matter to United States Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin, who issued a report and recommendation ("R & R") recommending that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further review. Magistrate Judge Perkin concluded that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ (1) improperly relied on testimony from a medical expert who had not reviewed all of the relevant medical records, (2) failed to consider a prior ALJ's finding that plaintiff suffered from a severe mental impairment during the time period immediately preceding the time period at issue in this appeal, and (3) failed to address the credibility and impact of testimony from plaintiff's mother and husband. The Commissioner has now filed objections to the R & R, and plaintiff has filed a response. Upon consideration of the R & R, the Commissioner's objections thereto, plaintiff's response to the objections, and the entire administrative record, and for the reasons set forth herein, the court will adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Perkin and remand the case to the ALJ for further consideration consistent with this memorandum.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff is a forty-eight year old woman with a high school education and prior work experience as a food service worker, a customer service representative, a secretary, and a meat packer. (R. 65, 74, 79.) Plaintiff stopped working in October 1994 when she injured her hands in her job as a meat packer*fn1 (R. 73, 762), and she was thereafter diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome (see, e.g., R. 933).*fn2 When two to three years of conservative treatment failed to relieve her pain, plaintiff underwent carpal tunnel release surgery on her right hand in August 1997 (R. 1012-13); however, she continued to experience increasing pain in both hands and wrists and numbness in her fingertips (see, e.g., R. 295, 615-16, 1056-58). Since she stopped working in 1994, plaintiff also has been treated for anxiety and depression relating to her physical problems and inability to work. In February 1999, plaintiff gave birth to a son, after which time she began to experience neck and back pain as well. (R. 291-92, 301; see also R. 100.) Plaintiff currently resides with her husband, son, and mother in her mother's home, to which she relocated because she needed help with household activities. (R. 94.)

Plaintiff first applied for DIB in July 1997, alleging disability due to carpal tunnel syndrome, stress, and depression with an onset date of October 11, 1994. (R. 700-02; see also R. 745.) That claim was initially denied in March 1998 (R. 683-87), and a hearing was thereafter held before ALJ Javier A. Arrastia in December 1998 (R. 1045-76). ALJ Arrastia issued a written decision denying plaintiff's claim on January 23, 1999. (R. 668-78.) Applying the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,*fn3 ALJ Arrastia found, based on the medical evidence, that plaintiff suffered from two severe impairments: "bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome with status post carpal tunnel release" and "adjustment disorder with depression." (R. 671, 676.) However, he concluded that these impairments, individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment; that plaintiff retained the ability to perform a range of light work (albeit less than the full range of such work) despite her impairments; and that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that plaintiff could still perform. (R. 676-77.) Plaintiff requested review of ALJ Arrastia's decision (R. 662-64), which request the Appeals Council denied in March 2002 (R. 653-54).

On September 11, 2000, while her request for review of ALJ Arrastia's adverse decision was still pending, plaintiff submitted a second DIB application, alleging disability due to carpal tunnel syndrome, cervical stenosis, arthritis, depression, and anxiety with a disability onset date of January 24, 1999, the day after the date of ALJ Arrastia's decision. (R. 65-67, 73.) The application was denied in December 2000 (R. 51-54), and plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing (R. 55). A hearing was held before ALJ Owen B. Katzman on May 6, 2002, at which plaintiff, her husband, and a vocational expert testified. (R. 286-313.) On August 29, 2002, ALJ Katzman issued a written decision denying plaintiff's claim. (R. 23-32.) The ALJ concluded that although the medical evidence reflected that plaintiff suffered from depression and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome up to and including December 31, 1999 (the last date on which plaintiff was insured for DIB), these impairments were not "severe" within the meaning of the regulations. (See R. 28, 31.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision (R. 19), but the Appeals Council denied the request in March 2004 (R. 9-12).

In August 2004, plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's adverse decision in this court, filing a complaint and a motion for summary judgment, which plaintiff styled as a "brief and statement in support of plaintiff's request for judicial review." Soli v. Barnhart, No. 04-3904 (E.D. Pa. filed Aug. 17, 2004) (Docket Nos. 1 & 9). (See also R. 357.) In response to plaintiff's motion, the Commissioner filed a motion to remand.*fn4 (R. 353-54.) The court granted the motion, with plaintiff's consent, on March 10, 2005. (R. 352.)

The following month, the Appeals Council issued an order vacating the ALJ's August 2002 decision and remanding the case to the ALJ with instructions to (1) consider the evidence submitted in connection with plaintiff's July 1997 DIB application and ALJ Arrastia's decision thereon; (2) consider an October 2000 examining source opinion from Stuart Wolfe, M.D.; (3) evaluate and explain the weight given to all relevant medical evidence, including medical source opinions (including requesting additional evidence or clarification from the medical source, as necessary); (4) re-evaluate plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity; and (5) obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of plaintiff's impairment, if necessary.*fn5 (R. 360-61.)

The ALJ thereafter held a hearing in the case on November 17, 2006,*fn6 at which plaintiff, her mother, her husband, and a vocational expert testified in person, and a medical expert testified by telephone. (See R. 597-648.) On December 11, 2006, the ALJ issued the adverse decision that is the subject of plaintiff's current appeal. (R. 329-39.) Although the ALJ reversed his earlier determination as to plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome, finding it to be a severe impairment, he went on to conclude that plaintiff was not disabled because she retained the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of light work, and there remained a significant number of jobs she could perform in the national economy. (R. 337-38.) The ALJ again concluded that plaintiff's alleged mental impairments were not severe, and found "no corroboration" of any significant lumbosacral or cervical spine impairment on or before December 31, 1999. (R. 332-33.) After receiving several extensions, plaintiff filed exceptions to the ALJ's decision in December 2007 (R. 317-20), but the Appeals Council denied review in May 2008, finding "no reason under our rules to assume jurisdiction" (R. 314-16).

On July 24, 2008, plaintiff filed the instant civil action, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Following briefing by the parties on plaintiff's request for review, I referred the matter to a magistrate judge, who issued an R & R on March 15, 2010, recommending that the case be remanded. In particular, the magistrate judge found that the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that plaintiff was not disabled from January 24, 1999, to December 31, 1999, was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ (1) improperly relied on the testimony of the medical expert, whose review of plaintiff's file was limited to records post-dating the January--December 1999 period of claimed disability; (2) failed to consider ALJ Arrastia's finding that plaintiff suffered from a severe mental impairment up to and including January 23, 1999, in concluding that plaintiff's mental impairment was not severe for the period of time beginning just one day later; and (3) failed to properly assess the credibility and impact of testimony from plaintiff's mother and husband.*fn7 (R & R 9-20.) The Commissioner objects to all of these findings.

II. Legal Standard

The court reviews de novo those portions of the magistrate judge's R & R to which objection is made, and may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In contrast, the court's review of the ALJ's decision is deferential. On such review, the court must determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "'Substantial evidence' has been defined as 'more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Reefer, 326 F.3d at 379 (citations omitted). In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the court "may not 'weigh the evidence or substitute [its own] conclusions for those of the fact-finder.'" Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 (quoting Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992)).

III. Discussion

A. ALJ's Reliance on Medical ...


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