United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania
Matthew W. Brann, United States District Judge
Plaintiff Pamela Ann Miller has filed this action seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Miller’s claims for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income 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.” Miller met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. Tr. 18, 122.
Supplemental security income is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income. Insured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant’s eligibility for supplemental security income benefits.
Miller protectively filed her applications for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits on September 18, 2009. Tr. 16, 124. Miller claims that she became disabled on March 23, 2009. Tr. 34. Miller has been diagnosed with numerous impairments, including major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse, gastroenteritis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. Tr. 19. On December 11, 2009, Miller’s applications were initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination. Tr. 64, 68.
On January 29, 2010, Miller requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 73. The ALJ conducted a hearing on December 15, 2010, where Miller was represented by counsel. Tr. 32-60. On February 3, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Miller’s applications. Tr. 16-26. On July 11, 2012, the Appeals Council declined to grant review. Tr. 1. Miller filed a complaint before this Court on September 10, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and this case became ripe for disposition on March 8, 2013, when Miller filed a reply brief.
Miller appeals the ALJ’s determination on five grounds: (1) the ALJ erred in using an incorrect alleged onset date, (2) the ALJ mischaracterized Miller’s activities of daily living and relied on those mischaracterizations in finding that Miller was able to work, (3) the ALJ erred in failing to give greater weight to Miller’s treating physician than a non-treating physician, (4) the ALJ failed to determine what mental stress accompanied Miller’s past relevant work, and (5) the ALJ erred at step three in finding that Miller’s mental impairments did not meet or equal a listing. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.
Statement of Relevant Facts
Miller is 40 years of age, did not complete school beyond the ninth grade and does not have a GED; she is able to read, write, speak and understand the English language. Tr. 41, 127. Miller’s past relevant work includes work as a cashier and a “stores laborer.” Tr. 56. Miller’s work as a cashier is classified as light, unskilled work, while her employment as a stores laborer is classified as medium, unskilled work. Id.
A. Miller’s Mental Impairments
Documentation of Miller’s mental impairments reaches back to 2006, when she began receiving outpatient treatment from Holy Spirit Hospital. Tr. 386. However, Miller’s relevant medical history begins in March of 2009, around the time she began treatment for alcohol abuse. On March 12, 2009, Miller presented to Holy Spirit Hospital for her final appointment before she entered rehab. Tr. 284. Miller’s therapist noted that she had a disheveled appearance, poor hygiene, a restricted affect, an anxious and depressed mood, and impaired immediate memory. Id.
On March 23, 2009, Miller presented herself to the Roxbury Treatment Center for inpatient treatment and alcohol rehabilitation. Tr. 211. Upon intake, Miller was diagnosed with alcohol dependence, depression, and anxiety. Tr. 213. It was noted that Miller appeared unclean and disheveled, but had no suicidal or homicidal ideations; she was assigned a GAF score of 35. Tr. 213, 216, 237. Miller also denied any past history of suicidal or homicidal ideations. Tr. 216. On March 31, 2009, Miller was given a psychiatric evaluation by Roxbury Treatment Center. Tr. 229. At this session, Miller was observed to have a normal tone, rate, and volume of speech, did not appear to be in acute distress, and was dressed neatly. Id. Miller’s insight and judgment were “influenced by her addiction but within normal limits, ” and her memory was intact. Id. Miller successfully completed her rehabilitation on April 16, 2009; at the time of her discharge, she was assigned a GAF score of 45. Tr. 214.
On April 23, 2009, Miller returned to Holy Spirit Hospital for treatment. Tr. 283. Her therapist noted that Miller had a normal appearance, good hygiene, and although she was anxious, her mood was generally euthymic with an appropriate affect and no suicidal or homicidal ideations. Id. Miller’s psychologist, Dr. Elaine Douglas, was surprised to learn that Miller had exited alcohol rehabilitation; previously Miller had denied drinking, even though she apparently had been drinking a twelve-pack of beer each day. Id.
Miller’s next appointment at Holy Spirit Hospital occurred on June 18, 2009. Tr. 282. Miller had a normal appearance, good hygiene, a euthymic mood with appropriate affect, and no suicidal or homicidal ideations. Id. Miller also reported that her anxiety had decreased. Id. On August 27, 2009, Miller returned to Holy Spirit Hospital; she had a normal appearance, fair hygiene, an anxious mood with appropriate affect, and denied any suicidal or homicidal ideations. Tr. 281. Miller stated that she was still sober, but had two “slips” where she had consumed a few beers and thrown up. Id. Miller also stated that she was paranoid and depressed at times and felt unlikeable. Id.
On September 23, 2009, Dr. Douglas noted that Miller had a disheveled appearance and fair hygiene; it was also noted that she had an anxious mood and restricted affect. Tr. 280. Miller again denied suicidal or homicidal ideations. Id. On October 21, 2009, Miller had a good appearance with fair hygiene, a euthymic mood with appropriate affect, and denied suicidal or homicidal ideations. Tr. 279. Miller noted that she was “not depressed, ” but was anxious at times. Id. Dr. Douglas restarted Miller on Pristiq. Id. At her next appointment on November 20, 2009, Miller reported that she was doing well on Pristiq, had a stable mood, and was “out ...