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Lee v. Colvin

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

March 18, 2014





The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Kristine Lee’s claim for social security disability Insurance benefits.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and “insured, ” that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the “date last insured.” It is undisputed that Lee met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2007. Tr. 12, 33 and 35.[1] In order to establish entitlement to disability insurance benefits Lee was required to establish that she suffered from a disability[2]on or before that date. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. §404.131(a)(2008); see Matullo v. Bowen, 926 F.2d 240, 244 (3d Cir. 1990).

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and relevant case law, the court is limited to reviewing the administrative record to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence. Counsel for the parties are familiar with the five-step sequential evaluation process[3] that the Commissioner utilizes and the substantial evidence standard of review.[4]

Lee protectively filed[5] her application for disability insurance benefits on August 2, 2010, almost nine years after her alleged disability onset date and three years after her date last insured. Tr. 28, 33, and 64-65. Lee’s application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination[6]on October 5, 2010. Tr. 33 and 48-51. On October 19, 2010, Lee requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 33 and 53-54. After about 11 months had passed, a hearing was held on September 13, 2011. Tr. 9-27. Lee was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id. At the conclusion of the hearing, the administrative law judge left the record open for two week to give Lee’s counsel an opportunity to submit further medical documentation. Tr. 26. No additional medical evidence was submitted. Tr. 33. On November 2, 2011, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Lee’s application. Tr. 33-37. The administrative law judge found at step two of the sequential evaluation process that Lee did not suffer from a severe medically determinable impairment and, consequently, she was not disabled.

On December 1, 2011, Lee filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and after about 182months had elapsed the Appeals Council on November 30, 2012, concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Lee’s request for review. Tr. 1-7. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner. Lee then filed a complaint in this court on January 18, 2013. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal[7] became ripe for disposition on June 24, 2013, when Lee elected not to file a reply brief.

Lee claims that she became disabled on December 31, 2001, because of rheumatoid arthritis with associated pain and swelling. Tr. 29, 43, 48. Lee, who is presently 54 years of age, withdrew from high school after completing the 10th grade and is able to read, write, speak and understand the English language. Tr. 24 and 88. Her past relevant work was as a laborer in the cosmetics industry. Tr. 24. A vocational expert reported that she held three different positions in that industry ranging from semi-skilled light work to unskilled, medium work. Id.

Lee in a document filed with the Social Security Administration reported that she stopped working on July 15, 2001, because of her condition. Tr. 89. At the administrative hearing Lee testified that she had “nodules” removed from her feet in 2001 and then she went back to work for a period of time. Tr. 15-16.

The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Lee had earnings in the years 1975 and 1978 through 2002. Tr. 77. Lee’s annual earnings range from a low of $397.99 in 1985 to a high of $14, 486.26 in 1999. Id. The sum of Lee’s earnings during those 26 years is $245, 308.04. Id.

For the reason set forth below we will affirm the decision of the Commissioner.


The administrative record in this case is 175 pages in length, primarily consisting of medical and vocational records. Lee argues that the ALJ erred by finding at step two of the sequential evaluation process that she did not suffer from a severe medically determinable impairment. We have thoroughly reviewed the medical records and find no merit in Lee’s argument.

The determination of whether a claimant has any severe impairments, at step two of the sequential evaluation process, is a threshold test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520©. If a claimant has no impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental abilities to perform basic work activities, the claimant is “not disabled” and the evaluation process ends at step two. Id. If a claimant has any severe impairments, the evaluation process continues. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d)-(g). An impairment significantly limits a claimant’s physical or mental abilities when its effect on the claimant to perform basic work activities is more than slight or minimal. Basic work activities include the ability to walk, stand, sit, lift, carry, push, pull, reach, climb, crawl, and handle. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(b). An individual’s basic mental or non-exertional abilities include the ability to understand, carry out and remember simple instructions, and respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers and work pressures. 20 C.F.R. § 1545(c).

The burden is on an applicant for social security disability insurance benefits to establish that he or she suffered from a severe medically determinable impairment which has lasted for a continuous 12-month period and that the impairment existed on or prior to the date last insured. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B), (d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 1520(a)(4)(ii); Matullo, 926 F.2d at 244. The worsening of a condition after the expiration of a claimant’s disability insured status cannot be the basis for an award of social security benefits. Id.

The Social Security regulations require that an applicant for disability insurance benefits come forward with medical evidence “showing that [the applicant] has an impairment(s) and how severe it is during the time [the applicant] say[s] [he or she is] disabled” and “showing how [the] impairment(s) affects [the applicant’s] functioning during the time [the applicant] say[s] [he or she is] disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(c).

No treating or examining physician provided a statement that prior to the date last insured Lee suffered from such an impairment. The ALJ in his decision correctly stated as follow:

The only medical evidence predating the claimant’s date last insured of December 31, 2007 is exhibit 1F. Specifically, it indicates the claimant underwent excision of rheumatoid nodules on her feet on September 24, 2001. Besides a description of the excision, the exhibit contains no details proving the existence of a severe impairment lasting twelve months or more.

Tr. 36. Exhibit 1F which is located at pages 115-117 of the administrative record is the report of the operation and a surgical pathology report relating to the nodules that were removed from Lee’s feet. There is no further medical evidence in the record relating to the relevant time period at issue in this case, i.e., December 31, 2001, through December 31, 2007. Also, the first medical record that we encounter after the date last insured is a report of an MRI of Lee’s right hip performed on May 29, 2008, which only revealed “mild to moderate bilateral hip osteoarthritis, no fracture, joint effusion or bone destruction” and “no labral tear.” Tr. 123. Also, on July 17, 2008, Lee visited the emergency department at the Pocono Medical Center complaining of an allergic reaction. Tr. 124. During that visit it was observed that Lee was “ambulatory with [a] steady gait[.]” Id.

Our review of the administrative record reveals that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence. We will, therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

An appropriate order will be entered.

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