United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
TAMMY J. GRAY Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
ALAN N. BLOCH, District Judge.
On October 22, 2009, Plaintiff Tammy Jo Gray filed her application claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§1381-1383f. (R. 18, 74, 135, 162). Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that she became disabled on October 1, 2008, due to asthma, headaches, blurred vision, blackouts, back problems, depression, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. (R. 75, 162, 302).
After being denied initially on March 4, 2010, Plaintiff filed a "Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on April 20, 2010. (R. 18, 80-86). An administrative hearing was held on June 22, 2011, and Plaintiff was present and represented by an attorney. (R. 18, 33-52). In a decision dated July 11, 2011, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (R. 18-26). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on October 22, 2012. (R. 7-9). On January 29, 2013, Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with this Court, and the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.
II. Standard of Review
Judicial review of a social security case is based upon the pleadings and the transcript of the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact. See Matthews v. Apfel , 239 F.3d 589, 592 (3d Cir. 2001) ("[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive") (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999) (noting that the court has plenary review of all legal issues, and reviews the administrative law judge's findings of fact to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence).
"Substantial evidence" is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). However, a "single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [Commissioner] ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence." Morales v. Apfel , 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Kent v. Schweiker , 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). "Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians) - or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion." Id. at 317.
A disability is established when the claimant can demonstrate 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. See Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001). "A claimant is considered unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity 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....'" Id. at 39 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).
The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability as defined by the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). In Step One, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If so, the disability claim will be denied. See Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If not, the second step of the process is to determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). "An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.921(a). If the claimant fails to show that his or her impairments are "severe, " he or she is ineligible for disability benefits. If the claimant does have a severe impairment, however, the Commissioner must proceed to Step Three and determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria for a listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If a claimant meets a listing, a finding of disability is automatically directed. If the claimant does not meet a listing, the analysis proceeds to Steps Four and Five.
Step Four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his or her past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(e) & (f). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to his or her past relevant work. See Adorno v. Shalala , 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume his or her former occupation, the evaluation moves to the fifth and final step.
At this stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing other available work in the national economy in order to deny a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (g). In making this determination, the ALJ should consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. See id. The ALJ must further analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether he or she is capable of performing work and is not disabled. Plummer , 186 F.3d at 428.
III. The ALJ's Decision
In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 22, 2009, the date she filed her application. (R. 20). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff met the second requirement of the process insofar as she had severe impairments, specifically, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, fibromyalgia and obesity. (Id.). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's depression was a "non-severe" impairment and further concluded that her impairments did not meet any of the listings that would satisfy Step Three. (Id.).
The ALJ proceeded to Step Four where he found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work with a sit/stand option. (R. 20-25). Based on this RFC, Plaintiff established that she was incapable of returning to her past ...