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Rockel v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

February 10, 2014

EDWARD RICHARD ROCKEL, II
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

MEMORANDUM

John R. Padova, J.

Plaintiff, Edward Richard Rockel, II, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Carolyn W. Colvin (“Commissioner”), partially denying his claim for Disability Income Benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Plaintiff filed a Request for Review to which the Commissioner responded. Pursuant to Local Rule 72.1(d)(1)(C), we referred the case to Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski for a Report and Recommendation. The Magistrate Judge has recommended that Plaintiff’s Request for Review be denied. Plaintiff filed timely objections to which the Commissioner has responded. For the reasons that follow, we sustain Plaintiff’s objections and remand this matter to the Commissioner for reconsideration and further findings.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II Application for DIB on July 21, 2006, alleging that he had become disabled beginning on December 20, 2005. (R. 253-58.) He simultaneously applied for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383.[1] (R. 259-61.) He claimed to be disabled by major depression, social anxiety, back problems, inability to sleep, and mood swings. (R. 272.) At the time of his application, he was 40 years old. (R. 253.) Prior to December 20, 2005, he had been employed as a custodian and he had also worked as a machine helper. (R. 85, 120.)

The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s applications for DIB and SSI on December 11, 2006. (R. 133-154.) Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge on December 26, 2006. (R. 155-56.) A hearing was held on April 24, 2008, at which both Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (R. 81-107.) On May 22, 2008, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Paula Garrety issued a Partially Favorable Decision. (R. 111-126.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was ‘disabled’ within the meaning of the Social Security Act from December 20, 2005 through January 1, 2008.” (R. 115.) She further concluded that Plaintiff’s medical condition had improved on January 2, 2008 and that his disability ended on that date. (R. 115-16.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and major depressive disorder with anxiety.” (R. 119.) She further found that, during the period from December 20, 2005 through January 1, 2008, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work that was “low stress in nature, involving no detailed tasks, confined to simple and routine tasks, with minimal supervision.” (Id. (emphasis omitted).) However, he was also unable “to maintain regular attendance and perform work activity on a sustained basis.” (Id. (emphasis omitted).) The ALJ also found that, beginning in January 2008, Plaintiff was no longer disabled because he “demonstrated decreased depressive symptoms and increased motivation” and “good concentration with no attention problems.” (R. 121.) Plaintiff had also begun looking for work and engaging in “a broad range of daily activities” such as “household chores, cleaning, laundry, driving a neighbor on errands and riding a bike.” (Id.) As a result, the ALJ concluded that, beginning on January 2, 2008, Plaintiff had a RFC for light work that was “low stress in nature, [not] involving detailed tasks, confined to simple and routine tasks, with minimal supervision, few work changes, and limited contact with the public and/or co-workers.” (R. 122 (emphasis omitted).)

On July 23, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration Office of Hearings and Appeals. (R. 195-98.) He sought reconsideration of the ALJ’s finding that he was no longer disabled after January 2, 2008. (R. 197.) He enclosed a June 10, 2008 report from his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Primelo. (Id.) On July 31, 2009, the Appeals Council issued an Affirmation and Order affirming the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff was disabled from December 20, 2005 until January 2, 2008 and remanding Plaintiff’s claim to the ALJ for further proceedings limited to the question of whether Plaintiff was disabled after January 1, 2008. (R. 130-32.)

Following the remand, the ALJ held a second hearing on October 7, 2010, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert both testified. (R. 46-80.) On December 18, 2010, the ALJ issued another Partially Favorable Decision. (R. 23-45.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was ‘disabled’ within the meaning of the Social Security Act from December 20, 2005 through May 20, 2008.” (R. 29.) She further concluded that Plaintiff’s medical condition had improved on May 21, 2008 and that his disability ended on that date. (Id.)

Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments between January 2, 2008 and May 2008: “degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine, obesity (5’10”, 250 pounds), major depressive disorder, and anxiety.” (R. 32 (emphasis omitted).) Plaintiff’s impairments arose in 2005 when, after the loss of close friends and family members, he developed depression and began to suffer from panic attacks. (Id.) He showed signs of improvement in early 2008 but continued to “experience anxiety and periods of irritability and anger” in April and May 2008, “which interfered with his ability to perform work activities on a regular basis.” (Id.) In addition, Plaintiff had a history of spinal surgery and “degenerative disc disease with chronic mid to lower back pain, with radiation to the left hip.” (R. 33.)

The ALJ found that, during the period from January 2, 2008 through May 20, 2008, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work that “involve[ed] routine 1-2 step tasks, no detailed instructions, minimal supervision, limited contact with the public/co-workers, and few work changes.” (R. 32 (emphasis omitted).) However, he was also “further restricted by his inability to maintain regular attendance.” (Id. (emphasis omitted).) Consequently, the ALJ found that, “[b]ased upon the credible evidence of record, including the opinions of Dr. Ralph Primelo.” Plaintiff “was unable to meet the basic mental demands of competitive employment on a regular, full time basis” and, considering his “age, education, work experience, and [RFC], there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] could have performed.” (R. 33 (emphasis omitted).)

The ALJ also found, however, that, beginning on May 21, 2008, Plaintiff was no longer disabled because he “demonstrated decreased depressive and anxiety symptoms, with increased motivation, improved concentration/attention” and “felt well enough to engage in a broad range of daily activities” such as “performing household chores, cleaning, laundry, driving a neighbor on errands, and riding a bike.” (R. 34.) As a result, the ALJ concluded that, beginning on May 21, 2008, Plaintiff had a RFC to perform light work that “involve[ed] routine 1-2 step tasks, no detailed instructions, minimal supervision, limited contact with the public/co-workers, and few work changes.” (R. 35 (emphasis omitted).) The ALJ further concluded that beginning on May 21, 2008, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC. (R. 38 (emphasis omitted).)

On February 18, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of the ALJ’s second decision with the Social Security Administration/Office of Hearings and Appeals. (R. 18.) He sought reconsideration of the ALJ’s determination that he was no longer disabled after May 21, 2008. (R. 328.) He claimed that the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to the opinion of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Primelo, and failed to consider all relevant evidence from his treatment history. (R. 327.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (R. 1.)

Plaintiff filed the instant action on October 12, 2012. The Request for Review raises two issues: (1) whether the ALJ erred by not giving adequate weight to the medical opinions and findings of Plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist, Dr. Primelo; and (2) whether the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff was no longer disabled on May 21, 2008 as a result of medical improvement. Magistrate Judge Sitarski found that the ALJ gave appropriate weight to the opinion evidence provided by Dr. Primelo, because the ALJ’s RFC determination is consistent with Dr. Primelo’s opinion that Plaintiff suffers from “problems with concentration, from poor stress tolerance, and from social anxieties, resulting in his being limited to work involving routine one to two step tasks, no detailed instructions, minimal supervision, limited contact with the public and co-workers, and few work changes.” (R&R at 11 (citing R. 35.).) Magistrate Judge Sitarski further found that the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s rejection of Dr. Primelo’s opinion that Plaintiff is totally unable to work. (Id. at 11-13 (citing R. 354, 358, 451-52, 482, 489-93.) Magistrate Judge Sitarski also found that there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff experienced medical improvement after May 20, 2008. (R&R at 13-14 (citing R. 495, 515, 537, 531, 545).) Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge’s finding that the ALJ gave appropriate weight to Dr. Primelo’s opinion evidence and to her determination that the ALJ correctly found that Plaintiff’s disability ended on May 21, 2008 based on medical improvement.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision is limited, and the ALJ’s findings of fact will not be disturbed if they are supported by substantial evidence. Brownawell v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 554 F.3d 352, 355 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); see also 42 U.S.G. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). 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.’” Brownawell, 554 F.3d at 355 (quoting Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003), and citing Johnson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008)). The ALJ’s legal conclusions are subject to plenary review. Hagans v. Comm’r of Social Security, 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Schaudeck v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999)).

We review de novo those portions of a Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). We may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Magistrate Judge’s findings or recommendations. Id.

III. DISCUSSION

A. The ALJ’s Rejection of Dr. Primelo’s Opinion Evidence

Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that the ALJ gave appropriate weight to the opinion evidence supplied by Dr. Primelo, ...


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