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Strickland v. Astrue

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 12, 2014

MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.

Presently before the court in the above-captioned matter are the complaint (Doc. 1) of plaintiff Katherine Strickland ("Strickland") seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security[1] ("Commissioner") denying Strickland's claim for social security and disability benefits, the Commissioner's answer (Doc. 6) thereto, and the transcript (Doc. 7) of administrative proceedings. The issues are fully briefed, (Docs. 11-12), and the matter is ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand the above-captioned matter for further proceedings, as necessary, and issuance of a new decision.

I. Factual and Procedural History

Katherine Strickland ("Strickland") was born on January 12, 1963, and was forty-five (45) years old at the time of alleged disability onset.[2] (Tr. at 157[3]). The record reveals that Strickland received her high school diploma and has relevant past work experience as a call center customer service representative, which is considered light, semi-skilled work. (Id. at 63, 157). She currently resides with her fiance and daughter. (Id. at 41-42).

Strickland protectively filed[4] for disability insurance benefits[5] ("DIB") on November 14, 2008, and for supplemental security income[6] ("SSI") on November 30, 2008. (Id. at 119-28). Strickland alleges that various impairments, individually and in combination, render her totally disabled and unable to engage in any gainful employment. (Id. at 38-39). Specifically, she asserts that the following impairments substantially limit her functional abilities: fibromyalgia, degenerative joint disease in the knees, depression, migraine headaches, diabetes, reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic pain. (Id. at 18-19). The administration denied Strickland's initial application for benefits on August 4, 2009. (Id. at 97-105). The administrative law judge ("ALJ") thereafter held a hearing and heard testimony from Strickland and a vocational expert. (Id. at 31-66).

During the hearing, Strickland testified at length with respect to subjective complaints. Regarding physical symptoms, Strickland reported waking up "every morning... feeling like I've been run over by a truck during the night." (Id. at 48). Strickland ranked her daily pain level "at a four or five depending on the area of my body" on a scale from zero to ten. (Id. at 58). Strickland stated that she feels nearly constant pain in the joints of her shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, and wrists. (Id. at 49). She testified that she misses school "anywhere from five to six, six to eight times a month" because her fibromyalgic pain prevents her from leaving her home. (Id. at 55). She also testified that she experiences migraine headaches, "at least four a month, " which are controlled by medication if caught in time, (id. at 53, 55), and that she was once hospitalized for a migraine which persisted for four (4) days. (Id. at 54). She stated that she suffers from frequent diarrhea as a result of irritable bowel syndrome. (Id.) According to Strickland, she experiences flare ups of diarrhea two or three days per week, each resulting in trips to the bathroom "anywhere from eight to 12 times a day in a work day." (Id. at 57).

With respect to her mental symptoms, Strickland stated that she has been treating with a priest, who is also a licensed psychologist, as therapy for situational depression, which she surmises is a result of her mother passing away, her son's deployment to Iraq, her ex-husband going to jail for abusing her daughter, and "not being able to do what I used to do." (Id. at 50-51). Strickland also explained that although she is generally good at retaining information, she sometimes struggles to recall information she has learned. (Id. at 48).

With respect to daily activities and abilities, Strickland testified that she can only lift a half gallon of milk and can handle walking for a short grocery store trip. (Id. at 52). Strickland testified that she can stand for approximately fifteen minutes and can sit for half an hour before she needs to move. (Id. at 53). At the time of the hearing, Strickland reported that she was in school full time at the Fortis School, four days per week, studying to become a medical assistant technician. (Tr. at 44-45). She testified that she is "doing very well" in school; however, she explained that the school is not very accommodating about poor attendance, and she was "in danger of being thrown out" for missing too much time. (Id.). She explained that while at school, she must stand up and walk around up to four times each morning and afternoon. (Id.) Strickland testified that her daughter handles all household chores. (Id.) Strickland reported that she recently attended a gathering of her former classmates in Philadelphia and that she took a trip to the Poconos with her fiance where they went to dinner, walked the complex, and then "stayed pretty much in" because of a snow storm. (Tr. at 43-44).

After the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Strickland is not disabled. (Id. at 13-26). Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Strickland has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work[7] with enumerated limitations. (Id. at 20-21). The vocational expert testified that various unskilled jobs exist in the national and local economy within these limitations. (Id. at 64-69). On June 20, 2012, the Social Security Appeals Council denied Strickland's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 1-5). On August 14, 2012, having exhausted her administrative remedies, Strickland commenced this civil action to challenge the decision of the ALJ pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).[8]

II. Standard of Review

District courts have jurisdiction to review decisions of the Commissioner denying disability insurance benefits or supplemental social security income based upon 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See id. ("Any individual... may obtain review of [any final decision of the Commissioner] by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of such decision."). When considering such an appeal, district courts have plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 181 F.3d 428, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater , 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995). Judicial review of the Commissioner's findings of fact is much more limited: the test is deferential and tasks the court to determine whether the factual findings are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); see Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) ("Where... findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); see also Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993); Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).

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, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B. , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla, " but less than a preponderance, of the evidence. Brown , 845 F.2d at 1213 (citing Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988)). 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 an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n , 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, " Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981), and "must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B. , 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). "When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.'" Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Mason , 994 F.2d at 1066). The ALJ must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson , 529 F.3d at 203; Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706-07. ...

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