United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REBECCA D. ALDRICH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, Magistrate Judge.
The record in this action (Doc. 11) has been reviewed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to determine if there is substantial evidence to support the Social Security Administration's decision denying the claim of Plaintiff, Rebecca Aldrich, for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on June 30, 2010, alleging she was disabled due to fibromyalgia, arthritis, depression, ovarian cyst, gall bladder disease, liver cyst, kidney stones, and severe vomiting, beginning January 2, 2010. (Tr. 147-52; Doc. 11-5). On October 27, 2010, Plaintiff's claim was denied. (Tr. 121-24; Doc. 11-4). On December 10, 2010, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (Tr. 127-28; Doc. 11-4). On September 26, 2011, Plaintiff appeared and testified at an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ronald Sweeda in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Tr. 51-68; Doc. 11-2). In order to allow Plaintiff additional time to submit updated medical evidence, Plaintiff's hearing was continued to December 13, 2011. (Tr. 13-17, 66-67; Doc. 11-2). On December 13, 2011, Plaintiff appeared and testified at the second administrative hearing before ALJ Sweeda in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Tr. 71-94; Doc. 11-2). On December 21, 2011, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision. (Tr. 99-114; Doc. 11-3). On January 3, 2012, Plaintiff filed a written request for review by the Appeals Council. (Tr. 143-45; Doc. 11-4). On March 1, 2012, Plaintiff's request for review was denied. (Tr. 1-6; Doc. 11-2).
On June 28, 2012, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, appealing the final decision denying her Title II application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). (Doc. 6). The Court granted Plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 5). On July 5, 2012, Plaintiff's counsel entered his appearance. (Doc. 9). On September 7, 2012, Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's complaint together with a copy of the administrative record. (Docs. 10, 11). On October 9, 2012, Plaintiff filed her brief. (Doc. 12). On October 26, 2012, Defendant filed a response. (Doc. 13). On March 22, 2013, Chief Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells issued a Report and Recommendation that the case be transferred to the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where Plaintiff resides. (Doc. 16). On April 10, 2013, the Report and Recommendation was adopted (Doc. 17) and the case was transferred to the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 18). This appeal is now ripe for disposition.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the court must determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence. Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999); Johnson, 529 F.3d at 200. Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the All ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). However, in an adequately developed factual record, substantial evidence may be "something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the decision] from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo v. Federal Maritime Commission, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). In determining if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence the court may not parse the record but rather must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).
To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Furthermore,
[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [his] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [he] is not only unable to do [his] previous work but cannot, considering [his] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which [he] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [him], or whether [he] would be hired if [he] applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), "work which exists in the national economy" means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (the "Act").
III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
A five-step process is required to determine if an applicant is disabled under the Act. The Commissioner must sequentially determine: (1) whether the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the applicant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the applicant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the applicant's impairment prevents the applicant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the applicant's impairment prevents the applicant from doing any other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
IV. THE ALPS DECISION
Using the above-outlined procedure, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2014. (Tr. 99-114; Doc. 11-3). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, at any time from January 2, 2010, through December 21, 2011, the date of the decision. (Tr. 113; Doc. 11-3). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 2, 2010. 20 C.F.R. §404.1571 et seq. ; (Tr. 101; Doc. 11-3). The ALJ further concluded that, through her last date insured, Plaintiff had severe impairments of fibromyalgia, asthma, degenerative disc disease, and carpal tunnel syndrome. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c); (Tr. 101-06; Doc. 11-3). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's alleged impairments due to gall bladder removal, kidney stones, ovarian and liver cysts, thyroid nodule, heart murmur, stress tremor in her lower extremities, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and opioid dependence were medically determinable, but not severe. (Tr. 101-06; Doc. 11-3). Further, the ALJ determined that Plaintiffs alleged impairment due to rheumatoid arthritis was not medically determinable. (Tr. 101-06; Doc. 11-3). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526; (Tr. 106; Doc. 11-3).
The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff had the residual function capacity ("RFC") to perform light work,  except that she could not perform work that would involve crawling, kneeling, climbing ladders or scaffolds, overhead work, or exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, or pulmonary irritants. (Tr. 106-112; Doc. 11-3). Further, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform less than frequent fingering, bilaterally. (Tr. 106-112; Doc. 11-3). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as an admissions representative and customer service/account representative. 20 C.F.R. §404.1565; (Tr. 112; Doc. 11-3). The ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1569, and 404.1569(a); (Tr. 113; Doc. 11-3).
V. >EVIDENCE OF RECORD
A. PLAINTIFF'S TESTIMONY
Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at two ALJ hearings. The first hearing took place on September 26, 2011. The second hearing took place on December 13, 2011. Plaintiff was born on March 10, 1972,  has the equivalent of a high school education,  and can read, write, speak, and understand the English language, and perform basic math functions such as counting change and paying bills. (Tr. 56-57, 206, 243; Docs. 11-2, 11-6). After finishing her GED, Plaintiff completed additional vocational training to become a medical assistant in 2007. (Tr. 206; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff testified that her only work subsequent to her alleged onset date of January 2, 2010, was in April 2010. (Tr. 57, 201; Docs. 11-2, 11-6). Plaintiff worked for approximately twenty days before she was "let go" due to complications with her ongoing illnesses, and because she needed to continuously move around to alleviate her pain. (Tr. 57, 201; Docs. 11-2, 11-6). At the time of the first hearing, Plaintiff admitted that she was receiving unemployment benefits. (Tr. 58; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff was still collecting unemployment benefits at the time of the second hearing. (Tr. 73; Doc. 11-2).
At the September 2011 hearing, Plaintiff testified that she was unable to work due to neck pain that radiated down her right arm, back pain that radiates down her right leg, carpal tunnel, fibromyalgia, fatigue, asthma resulting in two flare-ups per month, and gall bladder disease resulting in episodes of vomiting which occur once per month and can last up to three days. (Tr. 59; Doc. 11-2). In December 2011, Plaintiff testified that she was not able to work due to her: mental state; arthritis in her hands; carpal tunnel which caused pain and numbness in her right arm; difficulty sleeping; neck pain from a car accident which caused stiffness, numbness, and tingling down both arms; bronchial asthma; and back pain which caused numbness in her lower extremities and prevented her from sitting for long periods. (Tr. 78; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff also testified that she suffered from episodes of depression as a result of her other impairments, though admitted that she was not receiving any counseling; her treating physician prescribed Xanax to manage her feelings of depression and anxiety. (Tr. 86; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff testified that her ability to function was limited by several medication side-effects, including: impaired vision and mild disorientation from Lyrica; fatigue due to Vicoprofen and OxyContin; and numbness, tingling, and pain due to Symbicort and Prednisone P. (Tr. 82; Doc. 11-2).
Plaintiff spent most days watching television, trying to vacuum, and paying bills. (Tr. 89; Doc. 11-2). At the December 2011 hearing, Plaintiff testified she could walk for two blocks without sitting down, and had occasional difficulty gripping and opening bottles and cans. (Tr. 82-83, 85; Doc. 11-2). She also asserted that she could sit for up to fifteen minutes at one time in a solid chair before she needed to stand up. (Tr. 89; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff had some difficulty with personal care, including styling her hair, and fastening zippers and buttons while dressing herself. (Tr. 87; Doc. 11-2). She was able to do some household chores. Specifically, she could vacuum, though usually got winded and had to rest after she finished, dust, and cook, but she usually received assistance while cooking. (Tr. 88; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff had a driver's license, and was "sometimes" able to drive. (Tr. 56; Doc. 11-2). She asserted that her ability to drive was affected by her medication side effects, and her inability to sit for long periods of time. (Tr. 56; Doc. 11-2).
Plaintiff asserted that her impairments were treated by her primary care physician, Dr. Anselmi, who she saw or spoke to approximately once per month since May 2010. (Tr. 59-60; Doc. 11-2). She testified that Dr. Anselmi diagnosed her with fibromyalgia and arthritis. (Tr. 62-63; Doc. 11-2). Dr. Anselmi prescribed Plaintiff OxyContin and Vicoprofen to manage her pain. (Tr. 59-60, 78-79; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff further asserted that Dr. Anselmi was aware of her past problems with narcotic pain medication addiction. (Tr. 61, 79; Doc. 11-2). She did not have a narcotic pain contract with Dr. Anselmi. (Tr. 61; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff had a narcotic pain contract with Dr. Janerich. (Tr. 61; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff recalled that she was examined by Dr. Janerich twice to receive injections for her back, neck, and for an EMG. (Tr. 61; Doc. 11-2). Plaintiff was supposed to schedule an appointment with Dr. Janerich every four to six weeks, but generally there was a longer gap between appointments due to scheduling difficulties. (Tr. 81; Doc. 11-2).
On July 31, 2010, Plaintiff completed a pain questionnaire. (Tr. 224-26; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff indicated that she began to experience constant aching, throbbing, and crushing pain in her leg, knees, arms, chest, neck, feet, and hands in February 2009. (Tr. 224-26; Doc. 11-6). She described that her pain originated in her feet, radiated up her leg, through her hips, and into her back. (Tr. 224-26; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff also experienced pain originating in her hands, and radiated up her arms and into her neck. (Tr. 224-26; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff indicated that pain prevented her from lifting, opening bottles, carrying objects, sleeping, kneeling, cleaning her home, mowing the lawn, using a computer, typing, and writing. (Tr. 224-26; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff also completed a function report, in which she assessed her own limitations due to her impairments. (Tr. 240-47; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff asserted that her impairments affected her abilities to: lift; squat; bend; stand; reach; walk; sit; kneel; climb stairs; remember; complete tasks; concentrate; understand; follow instructions; and use her hands. (Tr. 245; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff indicated that she could not walk more than fifty feet at one time, she had difficulty completing tasks, and her ability to understand written and spoken instructions, handle stress, and adjust to changes in routine was reduced due to her impairments. (Tr. 245-46; Doc. 11-6).
Additionally, in her function report, Plaintiff revealed that she lived in a house with her family where she was responsible for caring for her son. (Tr. 241; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff indicated she had difficulty dressing, bathing, and shaving. (Tr. 241; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff reported "sometimes" preparing meals, but with great difficulty due to the pain in her hands, being able to do minimal cleaning and laundry, but needing a list and reminders to stay on task. (Tr. 241-42; Doc. 11-6). She went outside daily, was able to go out alone "sometimes, " and could drive and grocery shop "sometimes." (Tr. 243-44; Doc. 11-6). Plaintiff was able to pay bills and count change, but could not handle a savings or checking account due her propensity to overdraw the accounts when buying pain ...