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Sandra L. Curran v. Michael J. Astrue

June 23, 2011


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



Sandra L. Curran ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381 - 1383f ("Act"). This matter comes before the court on cross motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 10, 12). For the following reasons, Plaintiff‟s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendant‟s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.


Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI with the Social Security Administration June 23, 2006, claiming an inability to work due to disability beginning April 30, 2005. (R. at 85 -- 90)*fn1 . Plaintiff was initially denied benefits on December 6, 2006. (R. at 62 -- 69). A hearing was scheduled for June 17, 2008, and Plaintiff appeared to testify represented by counsel. (R. at 20). A vocational expert also testified. (R. at 20). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued his decision denying benefits to Plaintiff on October 6, 2008. (R. at 11 -- 19). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ‟s decision by the Appeals Council, which request was denied on April 8, 2010, thereby making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at 2 -- 5).

Plaintiff filed her Complaint in this court on June 4, 2010. (ECF No. 1). Defendant filed his Answer on August 25, 2010. (ECF No. 3). Cross motions for summary judgment followed.


Judicial review of the Commissioner‟s final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)*fn2 and 1383(c)(3)*fn3 . Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706. When reviewing a decision, the district court‟s role is limited to determining whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support an ALJ‟s findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002).

Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)(quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). If the ALJ‟s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390. When considering a case, a district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner‟s decision nor re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision in reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 -- 97 (1947). In short, the court can only test the adequacy of an ALJ‟s decision based upon the rationale explicitly provided by the ALJ. The court will not affirm a determination by substituting what it considers to be a proper basis. Chenery, 332 U.S. at 196 -- 97. Further, "even where this court acting de novo might have reached a different conclusion . . . so long as the agency‟s factfinding is supported by substantial evidence, reviewing courts lack power to reverse either those findings or the reasonable regulatory interpretations that an agency manifests in the course of making such findings." Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 90-91 (3d. Cir. 1986).

To be eligible for social security benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986). The ALJ must utilize a five-step sequential analysis when evaluating whether a claimant has met the requirements for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the medical evidence of the claimant‟s impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appx. 1; (4) whether the claimant‟s impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003). If the claimant is determined to be unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner (Step 5) to prove that, given claimant‟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. Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986).


The facts relevant to the present case are limited to those records that were available to the ALJ when rendering his decision. All other records newly submitted*fn4 to the Appeals Council or this Court will not be considered, here. See DISCUSSION, infra at 28.

A. General Background

Plaintiff was born on November 12, 1960, and was forty seven years of age at the time of her administrative hearing. (R. at 85). Plaintiff was twice married, and had two children and a number of grandchildren. (R. at 255). Plaintiff was dating a man from whom she rented her apartment. (R. at 33, 255). He lived in the first floor apartment; she lived in the second floor apartment. (R. at 33). Plaintiff dropped out of high school when she was eighteen years of age, but received her GED in 1990. (R. at 254, 460). Plaintiff attended Clarion University for business administration, but did not complete her degree. (R. at 471). At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was not employed and subsisted on welfare benefits. (R. at 24). She received medical insurance through the government, as well. (R. at 24). Plaintiff lost her medical coverage on a number of occasions between 2005 and 2008, however. (R. at 25 - 26).

B. Plaintiff‟s Functional Report

On July 2, 2006, Plaintiff completed a questionnaire regarding her daily activities and functional capabilities. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff complained that she was limited by left leg pain and swelling, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), bipolar disorder, and confusion. (R. at 120 -- 32). Her conditions were exacerbated by over-activity. (R. at 120 -- 32). She claimed that one of her friends would come over to her home twice a week to help with cleaning and her daughter would help with caring for her dogs. (R. at 120 -- 32). At the time, Plaintiff was engaging in a partial-hospitalization program, receiving counseling three times per week. (R. at 120 -- 32). She also would visit her doctor approximately once per week and attended physical therapy for her left leg twice per week. (R. at 120 -- 32).

Plaintiff explained that her physical and mental conditions had rendered her unable to work; she no longer walked her dog, had difficulty completing tasks, and she only bathed every other day, because it was easier. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff did not need reminders to take care of her personal hygiene, however. (R. at 120 -- 32). She sometimes suffered panic attacks. (R. at 120 -- 32). Weight gain became a problem. (R. at 120 -- 32). Reading comprehension was a weakness and often required Plaintiff to read instructions multiple times. (R. at 120 -- 32).

However, she did manage to cook a meal once a day and prepare herself a lunch once a day. (R. at 120 -- 32). She typically took out the trash every day, ran the vacuum cleaner twice per week, did laundry once a week, cleaned dishes twice per day, dusted once a week, and cleaned her floors every other week. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff was capable of driving herself to appointments, and to go grocery shopping. (R. at 120 -- 32). She could only carry four bags of groceries at a time, and therefore had to make multiple trips up and down the steps to her residence. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff would frequently need to rest between activities, often for up to an hour. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff‟s hobbies included watching television, collecting movies, and fishing, when she felt able. (R. at 120 -- 32).

Plaintiff averred that she could climb six to seven steps in a row before feeling pain and requiring rest. (R. at 120 -- 32). She could only walk fifty feet before feeling pain and requiring rest. (R. at 120 -- 32). She did not require any assistive devices to walk. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff could sit for two to three hours in a row, but would need to move occasionally because of stiffness. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff‟s knee pain often required her to elevate her leg and place ice on it for approximately two hours. (R. at 120 -- 32). The pain could be worsened with movement and occurred regularly, even lasting all day. (R. at 120 -- 32).

Plaintiff explained that she was physically abused by her father when she was a child, and suffered lasting psychological trauma. (R. at 120 -- 32). She did not participate in any activities with her extended family. (R. at 120 -- 32). Plaintiff did not feel like herself when she was in public. (R. at 120 -- 32). She had experienced conflicts with co-workers in the past. (R. at 120 -- 32).

C. Physical Treatment History

Plaintiff was diagnosed with symptomatic cholelithiasis*fn5 by Frank Klinger, M.D. in early September of 2005 following complaints by Plaintiff of discomfort in her right flank. (R. at 375 -- 77). The pain was often stabbing in nature and was accompanied by nausea. (R. at 375 -- 77). Plaintiff had not lost weight, but did suffer from intermittent loose stools and constipation. (R. at 375 -- 77). Consecutive magnetic resonance images ("MRI") showed evidence of cholelithiasis.

(R. at 375 -- 77). Plaintiff elected to undergo cholecystectomy to treat the condition. (R. at 375 -- 77). Plaintiff was smoking cigarettes and consuming approximately ten beers per week at the time of her diagnosis. (R. at 375 -- 77). She was noted to be obese, but not otherwise in distress.

(R. at 375 -- 77). Subsequent imaging of Plaintiff‟s upper gastrointestinal tract, also in early September of 2005, revealed the presence of gastroesophageal reflux ("GERD"). (R. at 390). On September 13, 2005, Dr. Klinger performed a laparoscopic cholecystectomy and a cholangiogram on Plaintiff -- successfully removing her gallbladder. (R. at 378 -- 79).

Plaintiff presented to William Hebda, M.D. in late February of 2006, complaining of chest pain. (R. at 150). She also stated that she had not felt well since her cholecystectomy, continued to suffer from diarrhea and abdominal pain, and experienced unusual pain and pressure in her chest. (R. at 150). However, imaging of Plaintiff‟s chest returned normal results.

(R. at 151, 189). An electrocardiogram ("EKG") of Plaintiff‟s chest also showed no significantly abnormal results. (R. at 151). Plaintiff was diagnosed with chest pain but with no evidence of myocardial infarction. (R. at 151). Stress testing also produced no significantly abnormal results. (R. at 144, 156, 190, 207). It was determined that Plaintiff‟s pain was likely the result of GERD, given her obesity. (R. at 144).

Plaintiff still complained of chest pain in March of 2006. (R. at 207 -- 11). Yet, she was found to be in no acute distress, had normal chest x-rays, and had normal EKG results. (R. at 207 -- 11, 239). Cardiac catheterization was recommended, however, in order to determine the exact etiology of Plaintiff‟s pain. (R. at 207 -- 11). Plaintiff was continuing to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, and drank several beers per week; she was advised to avoid such behavior.

(R. at 207 -- 11). Her subsequent heart catheterization returned normal results. (R. at 456).

Due to Plaintiff‟s persistent complaints of abdominal pain and diarrhea, computed tomography ("CT") scans of Plaintiff‟s upper abdomen and pelvis were conducted in August of 2006. (R. at 340). A renal cyst was observed on the left kidney, diverticulosis was noted in the colon, and a cyst was found on Plaintiff‟s right ovary. (R. at 340). Another CT of the pelvis in October of 2006 revealed similar results, although the ovarian cyst had resolved on its own. (R. at 317). Further, while diverticulosis was observed, there was no evidence of diverticulitis. (R. at 317). Plaintiff continued to complain of abdominal pain and nausea into October of 2006, however. (R. at 303). Plaintiff underwent a colonoscopy around June of 2008. (R. at 503). Benign polyps were found, and there was no evidence of microscopic colitis. (R. at 503). She was recommended for a follow up colonoscopy in ten years. (R. at 503).

Due to complaints of left knee pain and swelling, Plaintiff was referred by her primary care physician, Norman Beals, M.D. to W.D. Fritz, M.D. for an orthopedic consultation. (R. at 261 -- 64, 272). On June 9, 2006, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Fritz, who noted that an MRI and xray of the knee revealed degenerative changes in the patellofemoral compartment, and small joint effusion with suspected small loose bodies in the knee joint. (R. at 272). There was no joint effusion, no ligament laxity, and good range of motion with only mild crepitus. (R. at 272). These findings were consistent with earlier examinations of her joints and knee that revealed no gross joint deformity, effusion, or pedal edema. (R. at 152, 210). She showed no difficulty moving all of her extremities. (R. at 151, 210).

Plaintiff was considered an eventual candidate for arthroscopic knee surgery to remove the loose bodies. (R. at 272). Plaintiff was recommended for physical therapy to treat her discomfort in the meantime. (R. at 272). At a follow up with Dr. Fritz in late June, following a period of physical therapy, Plaintiff still complained of pain, but explained that the therapy was helping. (R. at 272). She was generally feeling better, and was capable of walking up stairs normally. (R. at 272). Plaintiff was advised to continue with physical therapy and was given a cortisone injection for additional pain relief. (R. at 272). The physical condition of her left knee was unchanged. (R. at 272).

Physical therapy notes spanning June and July of 2006 indicated Plaintiff experienced substantial improvement in her knee pain. (R. at 282 -- 94, 302). Plaintiff initially noted that her pain ranged from four to ten on a pain scale of ten. (R. at 282 -- 94, 302). Her pain was worst in the evenings after being on her feet all day. (R. at 282 -- 94, 302). Walking did not cause her ...

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