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Marshell L. Stehley v. Michael J. Astrue

July 2, 2012

MARSHELL L. STEHLEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Marshell L. Stehley, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which denied her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403; 1381-1383(f).

II. Background

A. Facts

Plaintiff was born on October 2, 1960. (R. 688). She has a ninth grade education and previous work experience as a prep cook, assembler in a plastics factory, hospital housekeeper, cashier, and instrument assembler. (R. 688, 889-891, 928).

She alleges disability as of September 1, 2001, due to degenerative disc disease in her cervical and lumbar spine, fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, headaches, depression, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome. (R. 148, 156, 894). The record reflects that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since having alleged disability in 2001.

(R. 674).

Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident on September 2, 2001, after which she began to complain of headaches and pain in her neck and back. (R. 237).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff initially filed an application for SSI and DIB on April 13, 2004, in which she claimed total disability since September 1, 2001. An administrative hearing was held on October 11, 2005 before Administrative Law Judge Patricia Henry ("ALJ"). Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing.

On February 24, 2006, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff in which she found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on August 4, 2006 when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the decision of the ALJ.

On November 27, 2006, Plaintiff filed her first Complaint in this Court in which she sought judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. On April 4, 2008, this Court remanded Plaintiff's case to the Commissioner with specific directions for the ALJ to "consider and evaluate all of Plaintiff's subjective complaints, and their effect on her ability to perform other relevant work," and to "conduct a two step analysis relating to Plaintiff's headaches. If, after considering all record evidence relating to Plaintiff's headaches she determines that her headaches are severe, she should continue with the remainder of the five-step analysis as described in the regulations." (R. 717, 719).

Following remand, ALJ Henry conducted a supplemental hearing on November 8, 2008. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Timothy E. Mahler, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing.

On February 25, 2009, the ALJ again rendered an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had a number of severe impairments, including migraine headaches and fibromyalgia, but that none of the impairments either singly or in combination medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 675, 684). The ALJ also determined that while Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she has the residual functional capacity to perform a wide range of sedentary work, with the following limitations: only occasional stooping, balancing, kneeling or climbing; avoid crouching or crawling, performing only simple, routine, repetitive work that is not performed in a fast-paced production environment and involves only simple work-related decision, involves relatively few work place changes, and has only occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers or the public. (R. 685).

The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on September 12, 2011, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the decision of the ALJ.

On November 11, 2011, Plaintiff filed her second Complaint in this Court in which she again sought judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when she:

1) Rejected the opinion of Kenneth R. Gold, M.D., Plaintiff's treating rheumatologist;

2) Failed to discuss the September 2004 and October 2004 medical records from Latrobe Area Hospital which detail hospital treatments for migraine headaches;

3) Failed to analyze Plaintiff's GAF score; and

4) Failed to accurately convey all of Plaintiff's impairments, and limitations they cause, in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert.

The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed as it is supported by substantial evidence.

The Court agrees with the Commissioner and will therefore grant the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner and deny the motion for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff.

III. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)/1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Capato v. Commissioner of Social Security, 631 F.3d 626, 628 (3d Cir. 2010) (internal citation omitted). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Security, 625 F.3d 798 (3d Cir. 2010).

In situations where a claimant files concurrent applications for SSI and DIB, courts have consistently addressed the issue of a claimant's disability in terms of meeting a single disability standard under the Act. See Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 119 n.1(3d. Cir 2002)("This test [whether a person is disabled for purposes of qualifying for SSI] is the same as that for determining whether a person is disabled for purposes of receiving social security disability benefits [DIB]. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 with § 404.1520."); Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 n.3 (1990)(holding that regulations implementing the Title II [DIB] standard, and those implementing the Title XVI [SSI] standard are the same in all relevant aspects.); Morales v. Apfel, 225 F. 3d 310, 315-16 (3d. Cir 2000)(stating claimants burden of proving disability is the same for both DIB and SSI).

When resolving the issue of whether an adult claimant is or is not disabled, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 (1995). This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant

(1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to his or her past relevant work, and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work. See 42 U.S.C . § 404.1520; Newell v. Commissioner of Social Security, 347 F.3d 541, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Security, 220 F.3d 112, 118-19 (3d Cir. 2000)).

To qualify for disability benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Fargnoli v. Halter, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal citation omitted); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1) (1982). This may be done in two ways:

(1) by introducing medical evidence that the claimant is disabled per se because he or she suffers from one or more of a number of serious impairments delineated in 20 C.F.R. Regulations No. 4, Subpt. P, Appendix 1. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1983); Newell, 347 ...


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