United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
BONITA L. POUNDS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT
GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.
AND NOW, this 4th of August, 2014, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment relating to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiffs application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 11) be, and the same hereby is, granted and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 13) be, and the same hereby is, denied. The Commissioner's decision of January 26, 2011, will be vacated and this case will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
When the Commissioner determines that a claimant is not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act, the findings leading to such a conclusion must be based upon substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'" Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).
Despite the deference to administrative decisions required by this standard, reviewing courts "retain a responsibility to scrutinize the entire record and to reverse or remand if the [Commissioner's] decision is not supported by substantial evidence.'" Morales v. Apfel , 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981)). In evaluating whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ's findings, "leniency [should] be shown in establishing the claimant's disability, and... the [Commissioner's] responsibility to rebut it [should] be strictly construed....'" Reefer v. Barnhart , 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979)).
Plaintiff protectively filed her pending application for benefits on August 10, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2008, due to depression. Plaintiff's application was denied initially. At plaintiff's request an ALJ held a hearing on January 12, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On January 26, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On August 2, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff was 43 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a younger person under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c). She has a limited education as she completed the eleventh grade but has not obtained a GED. 20 C.F.R. § 416.964(b)(3). Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a hostess and a telemarketer, but she has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date.
After reviewing plaintiffs medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ found that although the medical evidence establishes that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of major depressive disorder, mood disorder, bipolar disorder, schizo-affective disorder and personality disorder,  those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed at Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P.
The ALJ also found that plaintiff retains "the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: she is limited to low-stress jobs, and cannot interact with the public." (R. 20). Taking into account these restrictions, a vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff can perform based upon her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including janitor, assembler and packer. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that, although plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work, she is capable of making an adjustment to numerous jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Act.
The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment or impairments must be so severe that the claimant "is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy...." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the claim need not be reviewed further. Id .; see Barnhart v. Thomas , 124 S.Ct. 376 (2003).
Here, plaintiff raises two challenges to the ALJ's determination that plaintiff is not disabled: (1) the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding failed to account for all of plaintiffs work-related limitations supported by the record; and, (2) the ALJ failed to explain his rejection of the opinion of the consultative examiner that plaintiff has marked and/or extreme limitations in a number of work-related mental activities. Because the court believes that the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding is inadequate to accommodate all of plaintiffs limitations that the ALJ himself recognized, this case must be remanded for a clarification of that finding.
At step 5 of the sequential evaluation process the ALJ must show that there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can perform consistent with her medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). Residual functional capacity is defined as the most an individual still can do in a work setting despite the limitations caused by her impairments. Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 40 (3d Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a); SSR 96-8p.
In assessing residual functional capacity, the ALJ is to consider all of the relevant medical and other evidence in the case record in determining the individual's ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory and other requirements of work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3)-(4); SSR 96-8p. In regard to mental abilities, the ALJ first must assess the nature and extent of the claimant's mental limitations and restrictions and then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity for work activity on a regular and continuing basis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(c). The ALJ's residual functional capacity finding must "be accompanied by a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which it rests.'" Fargnoli, 577 F.3d at 41 (citation omitted).
In this case, in assessing plaintiffs residual functional capacity the ALJ considered all of the relevant medical evidence including, inter alia, reports from Dr. Marvin Wheeler, the consultative examiner, and Dr. Kerry Brace, the state agency reviewing consultant. Dr. Wheeler, following a psychological disability evaluation conducted on November 23, 2009, concluded that plaintiffs "ability to carry out work related activities such as understanding, retaining and following instructions is a serious limitation as is her ability to sustain attention to perform simple repetitive tasks at this time." (R. 365). He also opined that her "ability to tolerate the stress and pressures associated with day to day work type activities is considered a major limitation." (Id.) In addition, Dr. Wheeler completed a medical source statement in which he indicated that plaintiff suffers from moderate limitations in her ability to carry out short, simple instructions and her ability to interact appropriately with the public, marked limitations in her ability to understand and remember detailed ...