United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
M. FAITH ANGELL, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a partially favorable decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff’s claim prior to April 27, 2010 for disability benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. Presently before this court are the parties’ pleadings, including Plaintiff’s Motion For Summary Judgment Or, in the Alternative, Request for Remand [Document 8], the Defendant’s response thereto [Document 9], and Plaintiff’s reply brief [Document 10].
On July 23, 2013, Counsel presented oral argument. For the reasons which follow, I recommend that the relief sought by Plaintiff be denied and judgment be entered in favor of Defendant, affirming the decision of the Commissioner.
II. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY.
Ms. McCoy was born on February 25, 1955. She completed high school. See Administrative Record [Document 7], at 45, 74. The Claimant has past relevant work as a machine packager and laborer stores (unskilled positions of medium exertion). Record, at 18.
The decision of which Plaintiff seeks review is the July 14, 2011 decision of ALJ Anne W. Chain. The procedural events leading to this decision were described by the ALJ as follows:
“On July 28, 2009, the claimant protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. The claimant also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on July 28, 2009. In both applications, the claimant alleged disability beginning December 23, 2004. These claims were denied initially on April 19, 2010. Thereafter, the claimant filed a written request for hearing on July 15, 2010 (20 CFR 404.929 et seq. and 416.1429 et seq.). The claimant appeared and testified at a hearing held on May 31, 2011, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Christine A. Carrrozza-Roth, an impartial vocational expert, also appeared and provided testimony at the hearing. The claimant is represented by Jeffrey Lichtman, an attorney.”
Record, at 11.
In her Opinion, ALJ Chain determined that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to April 27, 2010, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of her decision. ALJ Chain further found that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time through December 31, 2009, her date last insured. Id.
Since the alleged onset date of December 23, 2004, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorder (alcohol) reportedly in remission. The ALJ found additional severe impairments, beginning on April 27, 2010 (the established onset date of disability), including: status post excision plantar fibromas and debridement. Id., at 13.
Considering all of the evidence, the ALJ determined that prior to April 27, 2010, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work involving no pushing/pulling with lower extremities; simple, routine tasks; short, simple instructions; simple work related decisions with few workplace changes; no interactions with the public; and no more than occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors. Id., at 15-16.
On July 19, 2012, Plaintiff filed an action in this Court requesting review of the adverse decision. Respondent answered the complaint, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment/request for review, Respondent filed a response in opposition, and Plaintiff filed a reply. This matter has been referred to me, by the Honorable Joel H. Slomsky, for Report and Recommendation.
III. SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY LAW.
A. Disability Determinations.
The Social Security Act authorizes several classes of disability benefits, including SSI and DIB benefits. In order to qualify for benefits, a person must be “disabled” under the Social Security Act and the accompanying regulations.
To establish a disability under the Social Security Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any `substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001)(quoting, Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir.1999)); 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(1982). A claimant can establish a disability in either of two ways: (1) by producing medical evidence that one is disabled per se as a result of meeting or equaling certain listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (2000), or (2) by demonstrating an impairment of such severity as to be unable to engage in any kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460 (1983); 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A).
The Commissioner's regulations provide a five (5) step sequential evaluation process for determining whether or not a claimant is under a disability. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The steps are followed in order. If it is determined that the claimant is not disabled at a step in the evaluation process, the ALJ will not continue on to the next step.
At Step 1, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. An individual who is working will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(b). Step 2 involves evaluating severe impairments. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c). Step 3 requires determining whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(d). Step 4 states that if an individual is capable of performing past relevant work, he will not be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(e). Step 5 requires that if an individual cannot perform past relevant work, additional factors must be considered to determine if other work in the national economy can be performed. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(f). See e.g., Ramirez v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 546, 550-51 (3d Cir. 2004).
It is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve conflicts in the evidence, and to determine credibility and the relative weights to be given to the evidence. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d at 429 (3d Cir. 1999); Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993). The ALJ's conclusions must be accepted unless they are without basis in the record. Torres v. Harris, 494 F.Supp. 297, 301 (E.D. Pa. 1980), aff'd, 659 F.2d 1071 (3d Cir. 1981).
B. Judicial Review of Disability Decisions.
The role of this court on judicial review is to determine whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d at 38 (3d Cir. 2001); Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 84 (3d Cir. 2000). Substantial evidence is defined as the relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988); Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 316 (3d Cir. 2000). It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence. Id.
It is not the role of the Court to re-weigh the evidence of record or substitute its own conclusions for that of the ALJ. See e.g., Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Upon appeal to this Court, the Commissioner’s factual determinations, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. This conclusiveness applies both to findings of fact and to inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d at 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.”).
IV. THE ALJ’S DECISION.
The ALJ received medical evidence and heard testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert. Proceeding through the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, and thus satisfied the requirements of Step 1 of the sequential evaluation. Record, at 13.
At Step 2, the ALJ found that: “[s]ince the alleged onset date of disability, December 23, 2004, the claimant has had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder; substance abuse disorder (alcohol) reportedly in remission. Beginning on the established onset date of disability, April 27, 2010, the claimant has had the following additional severe impairments: status post excision plantar fibromas and debridement.” Id.
At Step 3, the ALJ concluded, since the alleged onset date of disability, that Plaintiff’s impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet any of the Listings, specifically the Listings in section 1.00 (Musculoskeletal System), Listing 12.04 (Affective Disorders), 12.06 (Anxiety Disorders), and 12.09 (Substance Addiction Disorders). Record, at 14-15.
The ALJ reviewed the entire record and determined that, for the period from the alleged onset date to April 27, 2010, Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity to perform “medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(e) except no pushing/pulling with lower extremities; simple, routine tasks; short, simple instructions; simple work related decisions with few workplace changes; no interaction with public; and no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors.” Id., at 15-16. At Step 4, the ALJ found that prior to April 27, 2010, Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a machine packager and laborer ...