United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
MARK R. HORNAK, District Judge.
Plaintiff Bonnie Eckenrode ("Ms. Eckenrode") 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"), who denied her applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403; 1381-1383(f), respectively.
I. BACKGROUND AND FACTS
Ms. Eckenrode was born on October 18, 1960. ECF No. 6-2 at 33. She has a high school education. Id. at 34. Ms. Eckenrode was last consistently employed in 2006 as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Id. Prior to that, she held jobs as a cashier at a farmer's market and at a nursing home doing laundry. Id. at 34-35, Most recently, she worked for approximately a month as a laborer in a recycling plant in November 2008 until her position was eliminated. Id. at 36.
Ms. Eckenrode alleges disability as of January 21, 2010 due to various physical and mental impairments, including anxiety, depression, asthma, and other respiratory issues. Id. at 35-38; ECF No. 6-6 at 33. The record reflects that she has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since alleging disability in January 2010. Ms. Eckenrode initially filed an application for SSI and DIB on June 18, 2009, in which she claimed total disability since May 1, 2006. ECF No. 6-2 at 18. The State Agency denied her claims on December 15, 2009. Id. An administrative hearing was held on April 5, 2011 before Administrative Law Judge Brian Wood ("ALJ"). Id. Ms. Eckenrode was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Id. Karen Krull, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also testified at the hearing. Id.
On May 19, 2011, the ALJ rendered a decision unfavorable to Ms. Eckenrode in which the ALJ found that she was not under a disability within the meaning of the Act from May 1, 2006 through the date of the decision. Id. at 27. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on January 25, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request to review the decision of the ALJ. Id. at 2-4.
On February 12, 2013, Plaintiff filed her Complaint in this Court, seeking judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. ECF No. 3. The parties have filed Motions for Summary Judgment, ECF Nos. 10 and 12, and respective Briefs in Support, ECF Nos. 11 and 13. Ms. Eckenrode has filed a response to the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 14. She contends that the All erred in numerous respects - by failing to find that her condition met or equaled one of the Listed Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1, by giving little weight to the medical opinions of treating providers and a consultative examiner, by erroneously determining her Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), by disregarding the testimony of the VE and relying on an incomplete hypothetical question, and in failing to find that Ms. Eckenrode was disabled pursuant to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines found at 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 2. 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.
II. 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). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Thomas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 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."); 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, 416.920. 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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2003) ( quoting Burnett V. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 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. Massanari, 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. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1983); Newell, 347 F.3d at 545-46; Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004); or,
(2) in the event that claimant suffers from a less severe impairment, by demonstrating that he or she is nevertheless unable to engage in "any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy...." Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(2)(A)).
In order to prove disability under the second method, a claimant must first demonstrate the existence of a medically determinable disability that precludes her from returning to her former job. Newell, 347 F.3d at 545-46; Jones, 364 F.3d at 503. Once the claimant shows he is unable to resume her previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that, given claimant's mental or physical limitations, age, education and work experience, she is able to perform substantial gainful activity in jobs available in the national economy. Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 551; Newell, 347 F.3d at 546; Jones, 364 F.3d at 503; Burns, 312 F.3d 113, 119 (3d Cir. 2002).
Where a claimant has multiple impairments which may not individually reach the level of severity necessary to qualify any one such impairment for Listed Impairment status, the Commissioner nevertheless must consider all of the impairments in combination to determine whether, collectively, they meet or equal the severity of a Listed Impairment. Diaz v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 502 (3d Cir. 2009); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C) ("in determining an individual's eligibility for benefits, the Secretary shall consider the combined effect of all of the individual's impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of such severity").
In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act at the fifth step of the sequential evaluation process. ECF No. 6-2 at 26. The ALJ concluded that while Ms. Eckenrode did have a number of severe impairments - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, degenerative joint disease of the left ankle, obesity, Type II diabetes mellitus, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder - she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that "met or medically equaled" a Listed Impairment during the relevant period. Id. at 20-22. The ALJ then found that Ms. Eckenrode retained the RFC to perform light work as defined at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with a number of specific limitations:
1) Ms. Eckenrode could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently;
2) She could stand or walk for 6 hours of an ...