United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
BROCK A. MARTIN, Plaintiff
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,  ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
WILLIAM J. NEALON, District Judge.
The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Brock A. Martin's claim for social security disability insurance benefits. The history of this matter is aptly laid out in the order of this Court dated July 7, 2010, as follows:
Martin was born in the United States on July 21, 1985. He graduated from high school in 2003 and during high school had vocational training as an automobile mechanic. He can read, write, understand and speak English and perform basic mathematical functions. Although he worked briefly in 2003, 2004 and 2005, his earnings were insignificant and he has no prior relevant work experience for purposes of determining his entitlement to social security benefits. He has not worked since October 1, 2005.
On February 16, 2006, Martin protectively filed applications for adult child disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits alleging that he became disabled on October 1, 2005, as result of mental problems. Martin does not claim that he is disabled as the result of a physical impairment.
On May 9, 2006, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied Martin's applications. On June 1, 2006, Martin requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. After approximately 13 months had passed, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge on July 9, 2007. On August 8, 2007, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Martin's applications for benefits. On October 3, 2007, Martin filed an appeal of the administrative law judge's decision to the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration. After over two years had passed, the Appeals Council on October 20, 2009, concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Martin's request for review. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.
On December 23, 2009, Martin filed a complaint in this court requesting that we reverse the decision of the Commissioner denying him adult child disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.
Martin v. Astrue, 4:09-CV-2528, (Doc. 21, pp. 2-4) (M.D. Pa. 2010) (Muir, J.) (citations and footnotes omitted).
On July 7, 2010, Judge Muir, in deciding to vacate the decision of the Commissioner and remand the case for further proceedings, determined that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") committed a legal and factual error by failing to consider or to adequately explain the discounting of a bipolar disorder diagnosis, and "failing to make a finding as to whether or not bipolar disorder was a medically determinable mental impairment in Martin." Id. at 13-15. The Court noted that the record reflected that Rakesh Sharma, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director of Northeast Counseling Services, Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, on multiple occasions diagnosed Martin with bipolar disorder. Id. at 11. It was determined that the failure of the ALJ to either accept or reject the diagnosis of bipolar disorder was error. Id. at 13.
On November 30, 2010, a remand hearing was held before the same ALJ, Therese A. Hardiman, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Tr. 499-517. On January 11, 2011, ALJ Hardiman denied Martin's claims, concluding he has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Tr. 332-347. Administrative Appeals Judge, Christopher R. Field, denied Martin's request for review informing that "[t]he Appeals Council has concluded that a basis for assuming jurisdiction of this case has not been presented" and that "the [ALJ] complied with the District Court's Order and fully considered and evaluated the evidence and reached the appropriate conclusions on the issues." Tr. 321.
On December 28, 2011, Martin instigated this appeal by filing a complaint. (Doc. 1). On April 10, 2012, Defendant filed an answer and a transcript of the entire record of proceedings. (Docs. 8-9). The parties have filed briefs and the matter is now ripe for disposition. See (Docs. 12, 14, & 18). For the reasons that follow, the ALJ's decision will be affirmed.
Standard of Review
This Court has jurisdiction of appeals of final determinations of the Commissioner of Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When considering a social security appeal, the court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security , 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin. , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater , 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995). However, the court's review of the Commissioner's findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether those findings are supported by "substantial evidence." Id .; Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993); Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). Factual findings which are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) ("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981) ("Findings of fact by the Secretary must be accepted as conclusive by a reviewing court if supported by substantial evidence."); Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001); Keefe v. Shalala , 71 F.3d 1060, 1062 (2d Cir. 1995); Martin v. Sullivan , 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 & 1529 n.11 (11th Cir. 1990).
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. Commissioner of Social Security , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Brown , 845 F.2d at 1213. 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. Federal Maritime Commission , 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).
Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, " Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706, 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). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the Commissioner ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason , 994 F.2d at 1064. The Commissioner 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 706-707. Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).
Sequential Evaluation Process
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. § 432(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 Commissioner uses a five-step process in evaluating disability insurance and supplemental security income claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Poulos , 474 F.3d at 91-92. This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity, (2) has an impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that is severe, (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) has the residual functional capacity to return to his or her past work and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work in the national economy. Id . As part of step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity. Id . If the claimant has the residual functional capacity to do his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
Residual functional capacity is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis. See Social Security Ruling 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34475 (July 2, 1996). A regular and continuing basis contemplates full-time employment and is defined as eight hours a day, five days per week or other similar schedule. The residual functional capacity assessment must include a discussion of the individual's abilities. Id .; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945; Hartranft , 181 F.3d at 359 n.1 ("Residual functional capacity' is defined as that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s).").
On December 17, 1994, when Martin was nine (9) years old, he was treated for headaches and Dr. Yu-Song Kao noted he "tends to sleep a lot and has photophobia and need [sic] to lay in dark and quiet room." Tr. 144. An October 23, 1997 (age 12), Northeast Counseling Services Psychiatric Evaluation noted depression, anxiety, and antisocial behavior. Tr. 157. A December 22, 1997 Evaluation indicated Depressive Disorder and he was continued on Buspar "to be monitored and titrated as necessary." Tr. 166.
On October 10, 2002, in a medication review, Staff Psychiatrist Mukundam Veerabathini noted a history of schizoaffective disorder, that Martin stopped his Risperdal on his own and that he was advised to take his Risperdal, and that he is taking Effexor XR "on and off." Tr. 189.
A progress note dated April 4, 2003 states, "[s]ince last update, pt has been not taking any medication which was formerly used by pt and prescribed by - pt has been able to eliminate any of the complaints that he had with the medication - making him feel sleepy or unmotivated to participate in leisure activities or school work." Tr. 185.
An August 21, 2003 Clinical Psychological Evaluation, when Martin was eighteen (18) years of age, noted "Brock has an extensive mental health history... and has been on various medications since his early adolescence" and "recalls several without good effect, including Prozac and Risperdal." Tr. 193. He had a GAF score of 65. Tr. 196. Examining Psychologist Paul Taren, noted Martin "has been off psychotropic medications for several months now." Tr. 197. He recommended Martin continue with outpatient therapy. Tr. 197.
On September 8, 2003, Psychologist John Grutkowski noted that Martin had not required medication since November 15, 2002 and had been treating through counseling and reflected progress. Tr. 216.
Martin was admitted to First Hospital of Wyoming Valley on October 4, 2005 and treated for major depression; he was discharged on October 21, 2005. Tr. 219. Multiple medications "were tried" including Desyrel increased to 300 mg at bedtime; Paxil CR 25 mg in the morning; and Depakote ER 1500 mg at bedtime. Tr. 219. "Medication teaching was done prior to discharge and he was aware of the risks/benefits of taking it and the patient gave verbal consent to same." Tr. 219. Martin was "encouraged to continue current medication as is since it seems to be beneficial." Tr. 219.
On October 24, 2005 Northeast Counseling Services conducted an Initial Psychiatric Evaluation where Martin was diagnosed with, among other things, Major Depression and a GAF score of 60 was assessed. Tr. 243 & 490. Martin was on Depakote ER 1500 mg hs, Paxil ER 25 mg in the morning, Desyrel 300 mg daily which was reduced to 150 mg hs due to complaints of drowsiness. Tr. 243 & 491. Martin was referred to outpatient services and expressed an understanding of the side effects of his medications, the importance of taking his medications and avoiding alcohol. Tr. 243 & 491. In the initial evaluation, it was noted that Martin decided to go off his medication on his own and Martin stated that he stopped taking his medication ...