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Gizienski v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 24, 2014

TRICIA GIZIENSKI, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MARK R. HORNAK, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Tricia Gizienski ("Mrs. Gizienski") brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), which denied her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Mrs. Gizienski was born on February 5, 1972. ECF No. 5-2 at 21. She holds a Bachelor's degree in environmental science and a Juris Doctorate degree, and has been admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. Id. at 27. She last worked as a business/office manager for Absolute Primary Care, a company owned by her husband. Id. at 40-41. Prior to that, she was an attorney for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and owned her own small business. Id. at 28-31.

Mrs. Gizienski alleges disability as of February 27, 2007, due to various impairments, primarily chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome ("IBS"). Id. at 31, 34-35. The record reflects that she has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since alleging disability in June 2010.[1]

B. Procedural History

Mrs. Gizienski initially filed an application for DIB on June 21, 2010, in which she claimed total disability since February 27, 2007. Id. at 11. An administrative hearing was held on October 20, 2011 before Administrative Law Judge William Bezego ("ALJ"). Id. Mrs. Gizienski was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Id. Patricia Murphy, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also testified at the hearing. Id.

On January 24, 2012, the ALJ rendered a decision unfavorable to Mrs. Gizienski in which he found that she retained the ability to perform sedentary work, limited to occupations involving routine, repetitive tasks and entailing no more than frequent fine and gross manipulative tasks, that would allow her an at-will sit-stand option and would require only occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. Id. at 16. On that basis, the ALJ found she was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. Id. at 22.

The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on March 13, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Mrs. Gizienski's request to review the decision of the ALJ. Id. at 2-4.

On April 17, 2013, Mrs. Gizienski filed her Complaint in this Court, seeking judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. ECF No. 1. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment, ECF Nos. 9 and 11, and respective briefs in support, ECF Nos. 10 and 12. Mrs. Gizienski has filed a response to the Commissioner's brief. ECF No. 13. She contends that the ALJ erred in two respects - in failing to account for certain postural limitations in his hypothetical questions to the VE and in his formulation of her RFC, and by giving little weight to the opinions of both of her treating physicians. The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed as it is supported by substantial evidence. The Court concludes that the ALJ erred in failing to explain his omission of postural limitations in Mrs. Gizienski's RFC or his hypothetical questions to the VE, and therefore his decision is not supported by substantial evidence. The Court will therefore remand this case to the ALJ for further development of the record in accordance with this Opinion.

III. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Thomas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 625 F.3d 798, 800 (3d Cir. 2010).

In situations where a claimant files concurrent applications for SSI and DIB, courts have consistently addressed the issue of a claimant's disability in terms of meeting a single disability standard under the Act. See Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 119 n.1 (3d. Cir. 2002) ("This test [whether a person is disabled for purposes of qualifying for SSI] is the same as that for determining whether a person is disabled for purposes of receiving social security disability benefits [DIB]. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 with § 404.1520."); Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 n.3 (1990) (holding that regulations implementing the Title II [DIB] standard, and those implementing the Title XVI [SSI] standard ...


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