United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM Docs. 1, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.
The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying the application of Plaintiff Annette Rene Miller for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-433, 1382-1383 (the "Act"). This was Plaintiff's fifth claim for disability insurance benefits. Although Plaintiff had a history of severe psychological symptoms and three inpatient hospitalizations in 1997, 1998, and 2001, she improved in October of 2007 when she was prescribed a medication regimen that worked for her. At that time, she was stable and her symptoms were well-controlled. Plaintiff filed her fourth social security disability claim on January 8, 2008. However, the next week she reported to her physician that her symptoms were well-controlled on medication. Plaintiff did not complain of symptoms until August 29, 2008, when she asked her physician to fill out disability forms. However, her physician would only fill out the forms for a period up until she was evaluated by a psychiatrist. Plaintiff refused to schedule an evaluation by a psychiatrist, and her treating physician noted in March of 2009 that "[s]he needs to see psychiatry for an evaluation. I will extend her temp disability one more time for her, but will not do again unless she gets an appt with them. She does not appear to me during this interview to have [symptoms] that would keep her from working." (Tr. 236). On June 22, 2009, Plaintiff's claim was denied.
Plaintiff was evaluated in December 2009 by a psychiatrist, and exhibited many symptoms. She improved, but did poorly on one of her medications. Her physician switched her medications on April 21, 2010, and by May 19, 2010, Plaintiff's mental status exam was normal, she reported that she "felt much better, " and her physician opined that she "looked much better" and was "much calmer." However, she lost her job on May 22, 2010, and filed the present claim on May 27, 2010, alleging an onset date of May 22, 2010.
Subsequently, aside from a two-day period in October of 2010, Plaintiff consistently reported improved or stable mood and had largely normal mental status exams. Plaintiff was only seen six times, on average about once every two months, for ten to fifteen minutes, by a mental health professional. She never mentioned psychological symptoms in visits to her other providers during the relevant time. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments had improved since the time when she required inpatient hospitalizations and exhibited severe symptoms. He concluded that she could perform her past relevant work as a hospital housekeeper because, inter alia, it was simple, low-stress, and did not require interacting with people. In doing so, the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of a state agency consultant and found Plaintiff to be only partially credible.
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in failing to credit her treating physicians' treatment notes, her history of hospitalizations, the state agency physician's opinion, and her claims and testimony. However, her treating physician opined that she was able to work. The state physician's opinion stated that she had only moderate limitations, aside from marked limitations in complex tasks, which Plaintiff was not required to do as a hospital housekeeper. The ALJ properly used her history of hospitalizations only to conclude that Plaintiff had improved, because res judicata barred the ALJ from relitigating issues decided in the prior denial of benefits. The ALJ properly discounted Plaintiff's credibility because it was contradicted by her very conservative treatment and absence of symptoms during the relevant period. Plaintiff did not allege any other error by the ALJ.
The Court also notes that Plaintiff failed to identify what harm these alleged errors caused. She does not allege she should have been able to meet a listed impairment, and the only limitations she alleges should have been in the RFC-marked limitations in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions-were accommodated for by the ALJ's limitation to simple and routine tasks. For all of the foregoing reasons, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.
II. Procedural Background
Plaintiff had previously filed four applications for DIB, which were denied on February 23, 2001, May 13, 2003, April 8, 2004, and June 22, 2009. (Tr. 173). On May 27, 2010 and June 17, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI under Title XVI of the Act and for DIB under Title II of the Act. (Tr. 145-57). On August 12, 2010, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied these applications (Tr. 90-92), and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on September 15, 2010. (Tr. 116-17). On August 31, 2011, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (Tr. 30-72). On September 15, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 11-29). On November 14, 2011, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 6-10), which the Appeals Council denied on June 11, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5).
On August 9, 2013, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to appeal the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1). On November 20, 2013, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 9, 10). On January 4, 2014, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 11). On February 6, 2014, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 12, 13). On April 30, 2014, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Both parties consented to the referral of this case for adjudication to the undersigned on July 3, 2014, and an order referring the case to the undersigned for adjudication was entered on July 7, 2014. (Doc. 16, 17).
III. Standard of Review
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the denial. 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 is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart , 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence." Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 564 (1988). Substantial evidence requires only "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence, Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999), and may be less than a preponderance. Jones , 364 F.3d at 503. If a "reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate" to support a conclusion reached by the Commissioner, then the Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler , 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999); Johnson , 529 F.3d at 200.
IV. Sequential Evaluation Process
To receive disability or supplemental security benefits, 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act requires that a claimant for disability benefits 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).
The Commissioner uses 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 , 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. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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 from 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("listing"); (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 claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five 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 ...