United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
TINA M. TRAUTERMAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant
For TINA MARIE TRAUTERMAN, Plaintiff: Karl E. Osterhout, LEAD ATTORNEY, Oakmont, PA.
For COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant: Marshall J. Piccinini, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office, Erie, PA.
Donetta W. Ambrose, Senior U.S. District Judge.
OPINION and ORDER OF COURT SYNOPSIS
Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 12). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 9 and 13). Plaintiff also filed a Reply Brief. (Docket No. 14). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, Defendant's Motion (Docket No. 12) is denied and Plaintiff's Motion (Docket No. 8) is granted to the extent that the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the Opinion that follows.
Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (" Commissioner" ) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (ADIB@) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the " Act" ), 42 U.S.C. § § 401-433. Plaintiff applied for DIB on or about January 6, 2010. In her application, she alleged that since July 15, 2009, she had been disabled due to head trauma. (R. 11, 127, 144). Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) David F. Brash held a hearing on September 2, 2011, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 24-56). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. (R. 50-55). In a decision dated October 7, 2011, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 11-23). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on October 16, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-3). Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.
The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 12). Plaintiff raises five main issues on appeal:
1. Whether the ALJ erred by failing to evaluate the effects of Plaintiff's post-concussive headaches on her ability to work on a regular and continuing basis. See Pl.'s Br. [ECF No. 9] at 5-8.
2. Whether the ALJ's credibility finding is insufficient as a matter of law. Id. at 9-11.
3. Whether the Court should issue an immediate award of benefits because the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff was able to perform competitive work. Id. at 12.
4. Whether the ALJ failed to address the limitations set forth in the medical opinion of the state agency physician who reviewed the file. Id. at 13-15.
5. Whether the ALJ erroneously failed to include Plaintiff's use of a cane in his RFC determination and hypothetical question to the VE. Id. at 15-18.
The issues are now ripe for my review.
II. LEGAL ANALYSIS
A. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as " more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is " not merely a quantitative exercise." Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). " A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)." Id. The Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.
To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that she 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. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).
The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) ...