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Alyssa Dawn Eckenrode v. Michael J. Astrue

December 18, 2012


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



Plaintiff Alyssa Dawn Eckenrode ("Eckenrode") protectively applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits on October 23, 2009, alleging that she had become "disabled" on October 30, 1995. (R. at 10, 115, 124). Pennsylvania's Bureau of Disability Determination denied the application on February 11, 2010. (R. at 66). Eckenrode responded on April 13, 2010, by filing a request for an administrative hearing. (R. at 54-55). On May 10, 2011, a hearing was held in Seven Fields, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Douglas Cohen. (R. at 24). Eckenrode, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (R. at 27-47). Karen S. Krull ("Krull"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. (R. at 47-51). In a decision dated May 16, 2011, the ALJ determined that Eckenrode was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("Act"). (R. at 7-20).

On July 4, 2012, Eckenrode sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. (R. at 6). The Appeals Council denied the request for review on January 30, 2012, thereby making the ALJ's decision the "final decision" of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") in this case. (R. at 1). Eckenrode commenced this action on March 30, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (Docs. 1 & 3). Eckenrode and the Commissioner filed Motions for Summary Judgment on August 6, 2012, and September 6, 2012, respectively. (Docs. 6 & 8). The parties' cross-Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for disposition.

Eckenrode was born on June 21, 1990, making her nineteen years old on the date of her application and twenty years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 19, 115). She attended Butler Area High School until 2008, when she dropped out of school. (R. at 133, 245-354).

She testified that she had completed the eleventh grade. (R. at 27). Due to a learning disability, Eckenrode had an individualized education program ("IEP") throughout the course of her educational career. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(4). At the hearing, she stated that she could not read newspapers because they contained "too many big words." (R. at 27). Eckenrode responded in the affirmative when asked whether she could count change. (R. at 27).

At the second step of the sequential evaluation process, Eckenrode was found to be suffering from asthma, a learning disorder, obesity, migraine headaches, and auditory difficulties. (R. at 13). Her asthma, learning disorder, obesity and migraine headaches were deemed to be "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). The ALJ assessed Eckenrode's 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 light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant can occasionally climb (ramps/stairs only), balance, stoop, crouch, crawl and kneel. She must avoid even moderate exposure to dust, fumes, odors, gases, environs with poor ventilation, wetness, humidity, and temperature extremes. Work activity cannot require any more than the most basic reading/writing and no more than simple addition/subtraction. The claimant is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, not performed in a fast- paced production environment, involving only simple, work-related decisions, and in general, relatively few workplace changes.

(R. at 15). Eckenrode had no past relevant work. (R. at 18). In response to hypothetical questions describing an individual with the limitations contained in the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment, Krull testified that the described individual could work as a mail clerk, a ticket taker, an assembler, or a stock clerk. (R. at 47-49). Therefore, the ALJ denied Eckenrode's claim at the fifth step of the analysis. (R. at 19-20).

Eckenrode apparently underwent mental health treatment for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder when she was a child. (R. at 29). The treatment ended when she reached the age of thirteen, at which point her Ritalin was discontinued at her mother's insistence.

(R. at 29). Eckenrode testified that she had been given a prescription for Zoloft roughly one week before the hearing. (R. at 28-31). She attributed that prescription to her "depression." (R. at 29-31). Eckenrode's counsel asked the ALJ to order a consultative psychiatric evaluation for the purpose of discovering the extent to which Eckenrode's mental impairments impeded her ability to work. (R. at 29, 51). Acknowledging the ALJ's "time constraints,"*fn1 Eckenrode's counsel offered to schedule the evaluation herself and submit the results within two weeks.

(R. at 51). At the hearing, the ALJ stated that he would "take [the offer] under advisement."

(R. at 51). In his decision, the ALJ denied the request for a consultative examination on the ground that it would not uncover an impairment of sufficient duration to alter his residual functional capacity finding. (R. at 10-11).

Dr. Douglas Schiller, a non-examining psychological consultant, opined on January 12, 2010, that Eckenrode had no medically ...

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