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Lefevre v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 29, 2014



GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.

I. Procedural History

On April 20, 2010, Betty Ann LeFevre ("Plaintiff") protectively filed an application for Title II Social Security Disability benefits ("DIB"), with an onset date of April 12, 2010. (Tr. 59).

This application was denied, and on September 8, 2011, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), where Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Tr. 59). Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. On September 22, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to DIB because Plaintiff could perform light work (treated as sedentary) as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) (Tr. 62). On March 22, 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 April 26, 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 June 26, 2012, Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. Docs. 7, 8. On August 7, 2012, and September 10, 2012, the parties filed briefs in support. Docs. 10, 11. On April 29, 2014, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. On May 21, 2014, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. Doc. 13.

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 all times relevant to this claim Plaintiff was a "younger person" as defined by the Act (Tr. 15). 20 C.F.R. §404.1563(c). Younger individuals can more readily adjust to other work. Id . Plaintiff has past relevant work as a school bus driver, classified as a medium, semi-skilled job. (Tr. 65). Plaintiff's alleged onset date of April 12, 2010, coincides with her hospitalization for vertigo (Tr. 111, 139-47).

On June 2, 2010, Plaintiff completed a Function Report (Tr. 120-27). Plaintiff indicated that she cares for her personal needs, performs household chores such as cleaning and laundry, prepares meals, shops for groceries and household goods, drives, and handles her own finances (Tr. 120-23). She indicated that she can walkabout two blocks before needing to stop and take a rest; she is capable of finishing what she starts; and she does not require an assistive device (Tr. 126).

At the administrative hearing held on September 8, 2011, Plaintiff testified that she lives with her husband and adult children (Tr. 29-30). She drives her mother and sister to their doctors' appointments (Tr. 30). She cleans her house, including vacuuming, does the laundry, and makes simple meals (Tr. 40). She uses a stationary bike three times a week, goes shopping, and visits with friends every two weeks (Tr.41-42).

B. Relevant Medical Evidence

Beginning in March 2010, Plaintiff received treatment with Franklin Gergits, D.O., for ear pain and hearing loss (Tr. 148-69, 288-311). A March 26, 2010, sinus CT showed very subtle chronic findings, but no gross abnormalities (Tr. 138). In April 2010, Plaintiff had a one-day hospital admission for vertigo (Tr. 139-47). She was discharged completely symptom-free (Tr. 139). A May 10, 2010 audiogram revealed a mild low frequency, and moderate sensorineural hearing loss (Tr. 149). On examination on December 6, 2010, Plaintiff's right and left tympanic membranes were intact with good range of motion to pneumotoscopy (Tr. 296). An examination post-myringotomy tube insertion in January 2011, showed that the tubes were patent, and the canals were free of cerumen (Tr. 289). On February 21, 2011, Dr. Gergits recommended a hearing aid, but Plaintiff was not interested at that time (Tr. 289).

Mark A. Blakeslee, D.O., evaluated Plaintiff for complaints of recurrent headaches and intermittent episodes of vertigo and dizziness (Tr. 283-84). Plaintiff told Dr. Blakeslee that she had one migraine a month (Tr. 280). Dr. Blakeslee's impression was probable migraine headaches, as well as the combination of frequent non-migraneous headaches or chronic tension-type headaches (Tr. 281). He explained that some component of Plaintiff's vertigo could be a component of migraine (Tr. 281). He also believed that a component of Plaintiff's vertigo could be related to her chronic sinusitis and inner ear problems and fluid (Tr. 281). Dr. Blakeslee started Plaintiff on Amtriptyline medication, which improved Plaintiff's sleep (Tr. 282). Plaintiff reported that she was still awakening at times during the night with headaches, but Dr. Blakeslee believed that Plaintiff was experiencing rebound headaches due to her daily use of over-the-counter migraine medication (Tr. 279). He advised Plaintiff to decrease her use of the medication.

Plaintiff received treatment at Susquehanna Valley Medical Specialties for right shoulder and right hip pain (Tr. 312-13). Examinations revealed full range of motion of the right shoulder with pain and limping due to the right hip (Tr. 319-24). Mark Williams, D.O., diagnosed impingement syndrome of the right shoulder, mild degenerative joint disease, and trochanteric bursitis of the right hip, which he treated with injections (Tr. 319-24). On January 28, 2011, Plaintiff underwent excision of the trochanteric bursa of the right hip (Tr. 286-87). Six weeks after surgery, Plaintiff was ambulating with an assistive device, with only a slight antalgic gait (Tr. 317).

She stated that she was still having some pain, but it was "much better" than before surgery (Tr. 317).

On March 22, 2011, Lisa Mucciolo, M.D., evaluated Plaintiff for complaints of pain in her elbows, wrists, feet, and hands (Tr. 315-16). On examination, Plaintiff had fourteen out of eighteen tender points, decreased range of motion and tenderness in her wrists, and tenderness in the metacarpophalangeal joints and proximal interphalanagel joints (Tr. 515). On April 7, 2011, Dr. Mucciolo diagnosed Plaintiff with fibromyalgia and Sjogren's syndrome (Tr. 314).

After reviewing the evidence of record, Anne C. Zaydon, M.D., a state agency physician, assessed Plaintiff's work-related abilities (Tr. 250-55). Dr. Zaydon opined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) for light work (Tr. 250-55).

C. Plaintiff's Testimony

At the administrative hearing held on September 8, 2011, Plaintiff testified thatshe lives with her husband and adult children (Tr. 29-30). She testified that she has been "pretty good" and has not had an episode of vertigo since she had tubes inserted in her ears (Tr. 33). She testified she had problems with hearing, but was able to answer all the questions posed to her at the administrative hearing (Tr. 26-47). She testified her migraines were better (Tr. 34). As for her activities of daily living, Plaintiff testified she cleans her house, including vacuuming, does the laundry, prepares simple meals, and shops (Tr. 40-41). She exercises on a stationary bike three times a week (Tr. 41). She drives her mother and sister to their doctors' appointments and visits with friends every two weeks (Tr. 30, 42).

IV. Review of ALJ Decision

A five-step evaluation process is used to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Plummer , 186 F.3d at 428. If the Commissioner finds that a Plaintiff is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not proceed any further. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

The Commissioner 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, 416.920. Before moving on to step four in this process, the ALJ must also determine Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

The disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The initial burden rests with the claimant to demonstrate that she is unable to engage in past relevant work. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). The ultimate burden of proving ...

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