United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania
Joy Flowers Conti, United States Chief District Judge
On August 30, 2013, the plaintiff, Keli Elaine Barnes (“plaintiff” or “Barnes”), filed an action in the above-captioned case seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “defendant”) disallowing her claim for Supplemental Security Income benefits. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment and on April 9, 2014, the magistrate judge filed a Report and Recommendation recommending that plaintiff’s motion be denied, that defendant’s motion be granted and that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed (ECF No. 17). On April 27, 2014, plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 18). Defendant did not file a response to the objections.
In her objections, Barnes contends: 1) the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) improperly applied the treating physician rule in concluding that her juvenile onset rheumatoid arthritis did not render her disabled; 2) the ALJ improperly discredited her testimony; 3) the magistrate judge improperly impugned her credibility (albeit for different reasons than the ALJ); and 4) the magistrate judge failed to perform a substantive analysis of her arguments. Because the first objection requires a remand, it will be the only objection addressed in detail below.
The background of the case is set forth in the Report and Recommendation and will only be briefly reviewed in this opinion.
The ALJ at the conclusion of the hearing at which plaintiff and her sister testified invited plaintiff to submit additional medical evidence. He stated:
Well, as I indicated, I’m going to leave the record open for 30 days to give you an opportunity to supplement the record in any way that you see fit. What I’m going to particularly be looking for, though, and I hope you can provide me, is some sort of medical source statement by one of her treating physicians with regards to aspects which she has alluded to, but which I haven’t seen much in the way of documentation, and that’s with regards to any problems that she has related to her – the joints of her hands, or finger or wrists, in order to, you know, do things like hold things.
And this business about even taking notes, and, you know, typing, doing those things like that, that’s going to be a significant limitation if it’s adequately documented. So that’s what I’m looking for. I’m basically looking for something from her doctors that would indicate her capacity and her incapacity, especially in that regard.
(ECF No. 6-3 at 46.)
After the hearing before the ALJ, Barnes submitted two additional materials from her treating physician. The first supplemental material was the December 20, 2011 letter from her treating rheumatologist, Dr. Kietz. In that letter Dr. Kietz noted that Barnes had very severe chronic arthritis with profound limitations (ECF No. 6-14 at 16). In the second supplemental materials, the “Arthritis Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire, ” completed by Dr. Kietz on January 11, 2012, he reported, among other things, that plaintiff experienced reduced range of motion in all joints, joint deformity, reduced grip strength, and muscle weakness and atrophy (Id. at 18), in a competitive work situation, plaintiff could sit for fifteen minutes at a time, stand for ten minutes at a time, sit and stand/walk for less than two hours total, and needed to walk around for five minutes every twenty minutes, plaintiff required unscheduled breaks daily and a sit-stand option; she never could lift any amount of weight (Id. at 21); she could never twist, stoop, crouch or climb; she could perform fine and gross manipulation and reaching in all directions for only 20% of a workday; she would have “good days” and “bad days”; and she would be absent more than four days per month (Id. at 22).
There was no other opinion from an examining or non-examining physician in the record. The ALJ did not accept Dr. Kietz’s findings about plaintiff’s limitations because the ALJ found they were:
unpersuasive as they are not consistent with the medical evidence of record … and are inconsistent with other evidence of record. The clinical examinations and objective medical tests filed [sic] to show joint signs and symptoms reflective of the loss of functionality suggested by Dr. Kietz. In addition, a finding of disability is a legal conclusion reserved for the Administrative Law Judge. Accordingly, little weight is given to Dr. Kietz’s opinions. Although the claimant undoubtedly has some pain and limitations, I find these are accounted for in the residual functional capacity.
(ECF No. 6-2 at 30-31.)
Standard of Review