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McCauley v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 15, 2014



SUSAN E. SCHWAB, Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff, Carmen McCauley, appeals from an adverse decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (the Act). Jurisdiction is conferred upon this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). For the reasons stated herein, I recommend that the decision of the Commissioner be VACATED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

On April 28, 2010, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and under Title II of the Act alleging that she was unable to work due to Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSDS) / Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), and depression beginning August 13, 2009. Tr. 149-50, 171.[1] On September 15, 2010, Plaintiff's application was initially denied. Tr. 88-92. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a written request for an administrative hearing. Tr. 93-94. On October 25, 2011, Plaintiff, her husband David McCauley, and Impartial Vocational Expert (VE) Terry P. Leslie, appeared and testified before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Randy Riley in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Tr. 30-77. Medical expert Dr. Jack Lebeau testified at the hearing via telephone. Id. On November 10, 2011, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for benefits in a written decision. Tr. 16-25. Plaintiff sought, and was denied review by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision of November 10, 2011, the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. §404.981; Tr. 1-5.

On April 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. Doc. 1. On June 28, 2013, the Commissioner filed an answer; she filed the administrative record on the following day. Docs. 5, 6. On August 13, 2013, Plaintiff filed her supporting brief. Doc. 9. After being granted an extension of time, the Commissioner filed citations to the transcript refer to the Bates-stamped number in the bottom right-her brief on November 25, 2013. Doc. 14. On December 9, 2013, the Plaintiff filed a reply. Doc. 15. The appeal is now ripe for disposition.[2]


To receive benefits under Title II of the Act, a claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Furthermore:

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which [she] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [her], or whether [she] would be hired if [she] applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), "work which exists in the national economy" means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). In addition to the above-listed requirements, under Title II of the Act, a claimant must show that he or she contributed to the insurance program, is under retirement age, and became disabled prior to the date on which he or she was last insured. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131(a).

It is the responsibility of the ALJ to determine whether a claimant has met the statutory prerequisites for entitlement to benefits. In making this determination the ALJ employs a five-step evaluation process to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999). As part of this analysis the ALJ must sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the ALJ finds that a claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not proceed any further. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Moreover, between steps three and four of this process, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).

The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that he or she has a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. Once the claimant has satisfied her burden at steps one through four, it is incumbent upon the ALJ to show that jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with his or her age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512.

Plaintiff was born on May 29, 1972, and was 37 years old on her alleged onset date. Tr. 33. The ALJ classified her as a "younger person" under the Social Security regulations; therefore her age was considered to present little or no barrier to her adjustment to alternative employment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563; Tr. 24. The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff attained an associate's degree in nursing after completing high school, and was able to communicate in English. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1563(c), 404.1564(b); Tr. 24.

In his decision, the ALJ completed steps one through five of the five-step sequential evaluation process. He found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2014, Tr. 18, but concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from Plaintiff's alleged onset date of August 13, 2009, through November 10, 2011, the date of his decision. Tr. 25.

At step one of his analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of August 13, 2009, though the date of her decision. Tr. 18. At step two of his analysis, the ALJ found, based on testimony by Dr. Lebeau, that Plaintiff had the severe impairment of "right lower extremity pain;" but did not address the etiology of this impairment beyond concluding that it was not due to RSDS/CRPS. Id . At step three of his analysis, again relying on the testimony of Dr. Lebeau, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's ...

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