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Peggy Ann Brock Hartzog v. Michael J. Astrue

July 27, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Cathy Bissoon



For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 10) will be denied, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 8) will be granted, and this case will be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

Plaintiff Peggy Ann Brock Hartzog ("Hartzog") protectively applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on August 28, 2008, alleging that she became "disabled" on January 31, 2006. (R. at 9, 100, 141). On May 27, 2009, she protectively applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits, using the same onset date as reflected in her DIB application. (R. at 9, 107). Pennsylvania's Bureau of Disability Determination denied the applications on January 6, 2009. (R. at 68, 74). Hartzog responded on January 13, 2009, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. (R. at 79-80). On June 15, 2010, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")

Guy Koster. (R. at 24). Hartzog, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (R. at 28-51). An impartial vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (R. at 51-54).

Hartzog's alleged onset date was changed to December 8, 2007. (R. at 26).

The amendment was made to reflect the fact that a prior application filed by Hartzog had been denied on December 7, 2007, and that no basis existed for reopening that determination. (R. at 9, 26). In a decision dated October 18, 2010, the ALJ determined that Hartzog was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("Act"). (R. at 6-22).

On November 2, 2010, Hartzog sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. (R. at 98-99). The Appeals Council denied the request for review on August 22, 2011, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). (R. at 1). Hartzog commenced this action on September 12, 2011, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Docs. 1 & 2. Hartzog and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on March 19, 2012, and April 19, 2012, respectively. Docs. 8 & 10. The parties' cross-Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for adjudication.

At the second step of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Hartzog suffered from the "severe" impairments of fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, lower back pain secondary to sciatica, status post arthroscopic surgery of the left knee, carpal tunnel syndrome of the right hand, abdominal pain and somatoform disorder. (R. at 11-12). In light of Hartzog's multiple impairments, the ALJ assessed her residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing are limited to occasionally with no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds. In addition, she is accorded an alternate sit/stand option and should avoid exposure to temperature extremes. Due to the carpal tunnel syndrome, she should avoid jobs requiring constant repetitive hand movement, such as assembly work or typing. Due to problems with concentration and handling stress, she is capable of performing . . . simple, routine, repetitive tasks, requiring little independent decision making, with little or no changes in the work setting and only occasional contact with the general public, co-workers, and supervisors.

(R. at 14). Although these limitations rendered Hartzog incapable of returning to her past relevant work as a janitor, mailer, customer service clerk or sales clerk, the ALJ concluded that she could work as a surveillance system monitor, document preparer or addresser. (R. at 21-22). The vocational expert testified that these jobs existed in significant number in the national economy. (R. at 54).

Hartzog advances two arguments in support of her motion for summary judgment.

First, she contends that the ALJ erred in failing to consider the effect that her migraine headaches had on her ability to work. Doc. 9 at 6-11. Second, Hartzog maintains that the ALJ failed to adequately weigh an opinion of disability provided by her primary care physician, Dr. Christopher Rhody. Id. at 12-15.

When Hartzog applied for DIB and SSI benefits, she listed migraine headaches among the impairments limiting her ability to work. (R. at 147). She indicated that the migraine headaches caused her to experience eye pain, vomiting and dizzy spells, and that her medications to alleviate those problems either did not work or made her "too tired." (R. at 150). In a function report filed in ...

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