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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 26, 2014



GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction

The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying the application of Plaintiff Debra Johnson for supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-433, 1382-1383 (the "Act"). Plaintiff was forty-five years old on August 17, 2010, the date of her application. She alleged disability as a result of her mental impairments, primarily depression, generalized anxiety disorder ("GAD") and PTSD. Plaintiff stopped working in 2009 because she was fleeing domestic violence, not because of her impairments. Plaintiff did not apply for SSI until she enrolled in the state-run Maximizing Participation Project ("MPP"), which required her to file for SSI. When her application was denied, MPP required her to file an appeal. If she did not follow-through with her application and appeal, she would have lost her eligibility for the MPP services. From 2008 through the date of the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff received only outpatient counseling and medication. Treatment notes from 2008 consistently indicated she was making "good" progress and she improved in all of her treatment goals from 2010 to 2011. Although she indicated that she experienced debilitating anxiety and depression on an almost-daily basis, she had improved with treatment by May of 2011 to the point that she had depression on only three days per week and anxiety on two days per week. None of Plaintiff's treating physicians opined that she had functional limitations or was unable to work.

Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in failing to find that she met the requirements for Listing 12.04. However, in order to meet Listing 12.04, Plaintiff would have to meet either the "Paragraph B" or "Paragraph C" criteria. Plaintiff does not even allege that she meets either of those criteria, and substantial record evidence, including an opinion by a state agency physician, supports the ALJ's determination that she did not satisfy them. Thus, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's Listing analysis.

Plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ erred in evaluating her credibility, rendering his RFC assessment flawed. However, the ALJ based his credibility determination on Plaintiff's treatment record, which showed improvement and conservative treatment. Plaintiff does not directly challenge these rationales. Moreover, Plaintiff does not specifically identify any additional functional limitations the ALJ should have included, other than asserting she is entirely unable to work. Plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ erred in evaluating her credibility because he did not properly account for the side effects of her medication, but the only evidence of these side effects were her subjective complaints, which were properly discounted. Regardless, although Plaintiff identifies her claimed side effects, she does not identify any additional functional limitations that stem from them.

The ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's treatment record contradicted her subjective symptoms was accurate and is a proper basis for rejecting her credibility. Plaintiff does not directly challenge the ALJ's rationale for rejecting her credibility, and does not proffer another legitimate reason for rejecting the ALJ's conclusion. Consequently, substantial evidence also supports the ALJ's RFC assessment. The Court will affirm the decision of the Commissioner and deny Plaintiff's appeal.

II. Procedural Background

On September 1, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI under Title XVI of the Act. (Tr. 84-90). On October 27, 2010, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied this application and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing. (Tr. 47-48, 65-69). On October 12, 2011, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (Tr. 7-28). On November 29, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 49-64). On January 27, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 6), which the Appeals Council denied on July 13, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5).

On August 12, 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 14, 2013, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 10, 11). On December 27, 2013, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 12). On January 30, 2014, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 13). On April 29, 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. Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). 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; (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 disability within the meaning of the Act lies with the claimant. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a).

V. Relevant Facts in the Record

Plaintiff was born on July 27, 1965 and was classified by the regulations as a younger individual through the date of the ALJ decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. (Tr. 84). She has a limited education and past relevant work as a factory worker and a housekeeper. (Tr. 23-24). Plaintiff was treated for osteoarthritis, leg pain, neck pain, back pain and obesity on during the relevant period, but has not challenged the ALJ's determinations regarding her physical impairments. (Tr. 299-302).

Plaintiff was also treated for mental health impairments. Plaintiff was hospitalized from September 29, 2005 to October 25, 2005 for depression and cocaine dependence. (Tr. 250). She successfully completed the program and was discharged to Evergreen Halfway House. (Tr. 250). Plaintiff was treated from April 10, 2006 to August 10, 2006 at Berks Counseling Center for depression, mood swings, sleeping problems, anxiety, and fear of the dark. (Tr. 221-40, 270-97). She was working forty hours a week packing cell phones. (Tr. 222). Plaintiff was discharged because she stopped showing up for appointments when she could not find a baby sitter after her daughter was returned to her. (Tr. 224).

On March 12, 2008, Plaintiff was evaluated at Pennsylvania Counseling Services ("PCS"). (Tr. 330). She had been depressed since February and put herself into counseling. (Tr. 309). She had been living at the YMCA for the past two years with her two children. (Tr. 309). She reported that she was tired all the time, had no appetite, and could not sleep. (Tr. 330). Her social environment was supportive and she reported good relationships with all of her family members. (Tr. 331). Her appearance was appropriate, her behavioral presentation was cooperative, her speech was normal and coherent, her thought process was clear and coherent, her range of affect was normal, her thought content was non-psychotic, her eye contact was good, she was alert, her movement and concentration were appropriate, her impulse control, judgment, and fund of knowledge were good, and she had no memory difficulties. (Tr. 34). However, her affect was agitated, her mood was irritable, and her level of distress was high. (Tr. 334). She was diagnosed with GAD and assessed a GAF of 44. (Tr. 335).

On March 17, 2008, Plaintiff followed up at PCS. (Tr. 329). She was "beginning to respond to treatment." (Tr. 329). Her progress was "good" and her capacity to respond and benefit from therapy was "very good." (Tr. 329). On April 2, 2008, Plaintiff followed-up. (Tr. 328). She was frustrated with her current housing situation, but her progress was "good" and her capacity to respond and benefit from therapy was "very good." (Tr. 328). On April 11, 2008, Plaintiff followed-up. (Tr. 326). She presented with anger and anxiety. (Tr. 326). Her progress was "moderate" and her capacity to respond and benefit from therapy was "good." (Tr. 326). On April 17, 2008, Plaintiff followed-up and presented with anger and anxiety. (Tr. 325). She was anxious about her upcoming discharge from the YMCA program. (Tr. 325). Her progress was "good" and her capacity to respond and benefit from therapy was "very good." (Tr. 325). On April 24, 2008, Plaintiff followed-up. (Tr. 324). She was "confronting issues from the past and struggling with that." (Tr. 325). (Tr. 324). Her therapist noted that she was "on the road to recovery." (Tr. 324). Her progress was "good" and her capacity to respond and benefit from therapy was "excellent." (Id.).

On May 16, 2008, Plaintiff was evaluated by Dr. Hoda Hanna, M.D., at PCS. (Tr. 310). She was cooperative, verbal, and communicative. (Tr. 310). She "definitely seemed depressed in her mood and sad in her affect, but she was appropriate." (Tr. 310). There was "no evidence of disturbing thoughts, " she was relevant and coherent in her conversation, with no pressured speech, looseness of association or flight of ideas. (Tr. 310). "Cognitively she seemed intact." (Tr. 310). Her personality traits were "difficult to elicit although she does show a lot of emotional neediness and dependence, but she is showing a lot of insight into her own difficulty, just inadequate confidence and self-esteem." (Tr. 310). He diagnosed her with depression, ...

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