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Houghaling v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 20, 2014



GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.

I. Procedural History

On April 7, 2009, Cathy Houghaling ("Plaintiff") protectively filed an application for Title II Social Security Disability benefits ("DIB"), with an onset date of August 16, 2008. (Tr. 108).

This application was denied, and on January 20, 2011, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), where Plaintiff testified and was represented by counsel. (Tr. 20). On May 27, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to DIB because Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a nurse. (Tr. 17-28). On August 17, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5).

On October 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to appeal a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying social security benefits. Doc. 1.

On December 19, 2012, Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. Docs. 7, 8. In January and February 2013, the parties filed briefs in support. Docs. 9, 10. On May 1, 2014, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. On May 19, 2014, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. Doc. 12.

II. Standard of Review

When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, we must determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence. Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 564 (1988); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360. (3d Cir. 1999); Johnson , 529 F.3d at 200.

This is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart , 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence is satisfied without a large quantity of evidence; it requires only "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence. Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). It may be less than a preponderance. Jones , 364 F.3d at 503. Thus, if a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support the conclusion reached by the Acting Commissioner, then the Acting Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence and stands. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler , 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986).

To receive disability or supplemental security benefits, Plaintiff 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

Moreover, the Act requires further that a claimant for disability benefits must show that he has a physical or mental impairment of such a severity that: "he 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

III. Relevant Facts in the Record

A. Background

At the time of the ALJ's decision, the Plaintiff was 45 years of age with a date of birth of December 2, 1965. (Tr. 108). She alleged disability since August 16, 2008. (Tr. 108). Plaintiff alleged disability as a result of bilateral metacarpal joint disease and chronic neck pain. (Tr. at 121). Her past work experience was as a registered nurse. (Tr. 122).

In daily activities, Plaintiff handled personal care, took medication, took care of a dog, sorted laundry, and socialized (Tr. 139). Although Plaintiff alleged a difficulty using her hands, she could draft a check and lift a gallon of milk (Tr. 51, 142).

B. Relevant Medical Evidence

1. Relevant Medical Evidence as of Plaintiff's Alleged Onset Date of Disability

Plaintiff presented to Ashok Kumar, M.D., on September 9, 2008 for a pain management consultation (Tr. 175-76). Dr. Kumar indicated that Plaintiff's lateral flexion, neck flexion, and extension were mildly limited due to pain (Tr. 175). Although Plaintiff had some tenderness in her lumbosacral area, her deep tendon reflexes were normal, and she had full strength in her upper extremities (Tr. 175). As a result, Dr. Kumar performed a lumbar epidural steroid injection with bilateral occipital nerve block (Tr. 192, 246).

Plaintiff presented to Seth P. Shifrin, M.D., on September 11, 2008. Dr. Shifrin noted that Plaintiff had tenderness in her hands, she had full range of motion in her wrists, normal grip strength, and normal upper extremity strength (Tr. 291, 332). Although Plaintiff's grip strength had decreased bilaterally by January 21, 2009, she still had a full range of motion in her wrists (Tr. 331).

An MRI of Plaintiff's left shoulder on April 23, 2009 was negative for rotator cuff tear and mild degenerative changes in the acromioclavicular joint (Tr. 201-02, 209-10, 222, 267-68, 302-03). Although Dr. Shifrin noted a limited range of motion in Plaintiff's right thumb and shoulder on June 10, 2009, he recommended nothing more than continuation of physical therapy and occupational therapy (Tr. 328).

Lisa Petre, M.D., prepared a plethora of occupational therapy notes in June 2009. Although Plaintiff complained of a sore hand, wrist, and shoulder, her notes indicated that Plaintiff's shoulder was within normal limits (Tr. 277-78, 280-81, 283). Further, Dr. Petre recommended physical therapy ...

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