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Bash v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 8, 2014

SUSAN BASH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


CYNTHIA REED EDDY, Magistrate Judge.[1]

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Susan Bash brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. The parties have submitted cross motions for summary judgment and the record has been fully developed at the administrative proceedings. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) will be granted. The Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) will be denied. The administrative decision of the Commissioner will be reversed, and Plaintiff will be awarded DIB.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB on March 9, 2010, alleging onset of disability on May 15, 2009.[2] (R. at 149-153).[3] The application was denied by the state agency on August 27, 2010 and Plaintiff responded on October 15, 2010 by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. (R. at 69-73, 81). On September 13, 2011, an administrative hearing was held in Johnstown, Pennsylvania before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Marty R. Pillion. (R. at 42-65). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Id. Additionally, an impartial vocational expert, Irene H. Montgomery, testified at the hearing. Id.

In a decision dated October 7, 2011, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act since Plaintiff's alleged onset of disability, so her claims for disability benefits were denied. (R. at 23-41). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 27, 2013, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. (R. at 1-8).

Plaintiff commenced the present action on May 29, 2013, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 1). Plaintiff and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment on October 3, 2013 and December 16, 2013, respectively. (ECF Nos. 10, 13). These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. Factual Background

Plaintiff was born on July 2, 1961 and was 50 years of age at the time of the administrative hearing. (R. at 33). Plaintiff graduated from high school and completed three years of college. (R. at 47). Plaintiff has worked as a food preparation manager/baker, food preparation employee, mail carrier, and retail manager. (R. at 60-61). On May 15, 2009, Plaintiff quit her job, and alleged onset of disability on the same day. (R. at 149-153).

The medical record provides that Plaintiff has had extensive medical treatment relating to several medical impairments. Plaintiff began experiencing abdominal pain in 2002 and has seen at least six different gastroenterologists regarding her abdominal problems.[4] (R. at 527). Plaintiff has been assessed with having inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, long-term high risk immunosuppression, ulcerative colitis, chronic abdominal pain, and gastroparesis. (R. at 467, 468, 528, 530, 690-692). Plaintiff consistently reported that abdominal pain was her worst symptom, and also reported having acid reflux, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, eczema, multiple joint complaints, dizziness, lightheadedness, memory loss, nervousness, depression, and insomnia. (R. at 471-473, 477). In February 2011, Dr. Amin, one of Plaintiff's treating gastroenterologists, opined that Plaintiff would be absent from work as a result of her gastrointestinal impairments at least three times per month. (R. at 689). Additionally, Dr. Amin opined that Plaintiff would have to be away from her work station, on average, two to three times per day for approximately ten to fifteen minutes each time, and would have less than two minutes advance notice. (R. at 689).

Plaintiff also sought treatment for headaches.[5] Plaintiff began seeing neurologist Mihaela Mihaescu, M.D. in October 2010, and was examined by Dr. Mihaescu every two months until April 2011. (R. at 678-680, 695). At the initial consultation, Dr. Mihaescu noted that Plaintiff had experienced significant side effects from previous medications and started Plaintiff on Neurontin medication. (R. at 678-680). At a follow-up appointment in December 2010, Dr. Mihaescu stated that Plaintiff's headaches had decreased from eleven in the previous month to seven in the current month, Plaintiff had tolerated Neurontin well, which helped with her headaches, dizziness, insomnia, and moods, and that the dosage could be increased. (R. at 675-676). However, in April 2011, Dr. Mihaescu recorded that the increased dosage of Neurontin was "helping to some extent but not completely" and Plaintiff could not tolerate any additional increases in dosage of Neurontin. (R. at 693).

Dr. Mihaescu stated that despite the medications helping, Plaintiff was experiencing between five to seven headaches per month. Id. On days that Plaintiff had headaches, she had "fairly significant limitation[s]... because of her intolerance to lights, smells, sounds and difficulty concentrating and occasionally the left sided weakness. Her nausea is also a factor in her inability to function properly." (R. at 694). Plaintiff was diagnosed with "mixed-headache disorder with tension headaches, complicated migraines and chronic insomnia." (R. at 693). Dr. Mihaescu opined that Plaintiff could not be "gainfully employed full time in competitive work, because of the frequency and severity of the migraines when the[y] occur." (R. at 694). Dr. Mihaescu estimated that Plaintiff would need to be absent from work at least three times per month. (R. at 699).

Plaintiff also received mental health treatment. Plaintiff treated with multiple mental health physicians on referral from both her gastroenterologists and neurologist.[6] Plaintiff received treatment relating to her underlying mental health conditions and also had her medications monitored and adjusted in relation to any side effects she experienced. Plaintiff was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, bipolar disorder, pain disorder without agoraphobia, and stressors. (R. at 484, 716).

IV. The ALJ's Decision

On October 7, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision, finding that Plaintiff had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Act since her alleged onset of disability. (R. at 34). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset of disability and concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: Crohn's disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome, long-term risk immunosuppression, mixed headache disorder, migraine headaches, chronic tension headaches, gastroparesis, osteoarthritis of the knees, diabetes mellitus, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, dysthymic disorder, adjustment disorder, and panic disorder without agoraphobia. (R. at 25). The ALJ found that ...

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