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Eckles v. Astrue

August 25, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David Stewart Cercone United States District Judge

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Plaintiff Wendy S. Eckles ("Eckles") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial 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") [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f]. 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. For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner (Document No. 11) will be denied, and the motion for summary judgment filed by Eckles (Document No. 9) will be granted. The decision of the Commissioner will be reversed pursuant to the fourth sentence of § 405(g), and the case will be remanded with direction to grant benefits consistent with an onset date of August 27, 2007.*fn1


Eckles applied for DIB and SSI benefits on August 23, 2007, alleging disability as of March 22, 2007. R. 100, 103. The applications were administratively denied on January 8, 2008. R. 52, 57. Eckles responded on January 17, 2008, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 62. On October 8, 2008, a hearing was held in Seven Fields, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge James J. Pileggi (the "ALJ"). R. 11. Eckles, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 14-28, 32-34. Dr. Fred A. Monaco, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 28-31. In a decision dated December 23, 2008, the ALJ determined that Eckles was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 38-51. The Appeals Council denied Eckles' request for review on May 1, 2009, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1.

Eckles commenced this action on June 8, 2009, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Doc. Nos. 1 & 4. Eckles and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on September 10, 2009, and October 21, 2009, respectively. Doc. Nos. 9 & 11. These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.


Eckles was born on February 17, 1971, making her thirty-six years of age as of her alleged onset date and thirty-seven years old as of the date of the ALJ's decision. R. 50. She graduated from high school and completed one year of college. R. 16. She has past relevant work experience as a bartender/waitress, desk clerk and customer service representative. R. 133. Her alleged onset date of March 22, 2007, coincides with the date on which she stopped working.

R. 132. She apparently injured herself while attending a funeral on that date. R. 132. At that time, she was employed as a customer service representative for an insurance company. R. 133. After her injury, Eckles reported that she could no longer sit for the period of eight hours that she needed to work in order to complete a shift. R. 132-133.

The record indicates that Eckles experienced significant back pain prior to her injury. On March 1, 2006, Dr. Brian D. Shannon observed that Eckles experienced "pain with palpation through the bottom portion of the sacrum and in the area of the coccyx." R. 189. A magnetic resonance imaging ("MRI") scan of Eckles' pelvis, sacrum and coccyx yielded normal results.

R. 189.

Dr. Charles E. D'Auria reported on November 6, 2006, that Eckles had left work that morning because of pain in the upper and middle portions of her back. R. 217. This pain apparently intensified when Eckles sneezed while pulling into a parking space. R. 217. Dr. D'Auria determined that Eckles had sprained her thoracic spine. R. 217. He cleared her to return to work the next day. R. 217.

Eckles was examined by Dr. D'Auria on March 23, 2007. R. 213. She told him that she had injured her back while attending a funeral the previous day. R. 213. This injury evidently occurred when Eckles got her heel stuck in soft dirt, causing her to strain her back. R. 213. Dr. D'Auria instructed Eckles not to return to work, indicating that she had aggravated her pre-existing degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. R. 213.

Eckles returned to Dr. D'Auria's office on March 27, 2007, complaining of "severe distress across her back." R. 212. Dr. D'Auria's examination revealed that Eckles' lumbar muscles were "spastic and tender." R. 212. Dr. D'Auria completed paperwork certifying that Eckles was disabled for the short term. R. 212.

Two days later, Eckles was still experiencing "severe pain" in her back. R. 211. An arthrocentesis was performed to alleviate her pain. R. 211. Nevertheless, on April 2, 2007, Eckles went to the Sharon Regional Health System's emergency room because her pain had become more intense. X-rays of her lumbar spine indicated that she had not sustained a fracture.

R. 193. When Eckles returned to Dr. D'Auria's office on April 4, 2007, it was noted that she had experienced only a "minimal improvement" of her symptoms after undergoing the arthrocentesis.

R. 209.

Eckles was examined by Dr. Robert A. Weiner, a pain management specialist, on April 11, 2007. R. 201-202. Dr. Weiner's examination revealed "tenderness to palpation along [Eckles'] entire vertebral column from the cervical down to the lumbar region." R. 202. Epidural steroid injections were administered to alleviate her back pain. R. 208. Two days later, however, Eckles continued "to have distress across her lumbar area." R. 208. Dr. D'Auria was concerned that Eckles' condition was not improving as rapidly as he had previously expected. R. 208. When Eckles visited Dr. D'Auria on April 19, 2007, it was difficult for her to move on and off of the examination table. R. 207. Nonetheless, she told Dr. D'Auria that the epidural injections administered by Dr. Weiner had somewhat improved her condition. R. 207. On April 24, 2007, Dr. Weiner performed epidural blocks on Eckles' back. R. 381. As of May 3, 2007, Eckles was feeling "no better and no worse" than she had been feeling in the immediate aftermath of her injury. R. 205.

On May 7, 2007, an MRI scan of Eckles' lumbar spine revealed that there was "a central to left paracentral disc herniation." R. 191. Dr. Weiner performed additional epidural blocks on Eckles' back on May 8, 2007, and May 22, 2007. R. 379-380. Dr. D'Auria decided to refer Eckles to Dr. James Kang for the purpose of determining whether she would need to undergo back surgery. R. 204.

Eckles was examined by Dr. Ravi Ponnappan, who worked under the supervision of Dr. Kang, on June 15, 2007. R. 245-247. She complained of significant problems associated with prolonged sitting and walking. R. 245. It was recommended that she undergo "an L5-S1 left-sided microdiscectomy to address her radicular complaints." R. 246. The procedure was performed by Dr. Kang on June 20, 2007, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Shadyside Hospital ("UPMC Shadyside"). R. 254-255. An x-ray of Eckles' lumbar spine conducted on July 6, 2007, demonstrated "minimal disc height loss at the L5-S1 level" but "no findings of fracture." R. 253. Dr. Kang examined Eckles that same day. R. 244. In his examination report, he stated as follows:

SUBJECTIVE: Wendy is 2 weeks status post her left-sided microdiscectomy of L5-S1. She is doing well and her left-sided leg pain for the most part is gone. She is still having some occasional tightness in her hamstrings. She reminded me of her neck symptoms. She has some right-sided arm numbness and tingling, but she does not feel that it is terribly bad.

OBJECTIVE: On exam, her cervical and lumbar range of motion is supple. Her lumbar incision is well healed. Neurologically, motor and sensory examinations of the upper and lower extremities are pretty much normal ...

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