United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Mark Kalenkoski, appeals from an adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The jurisdiction of this Court is invoked pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3)(incorporating 42 U.S.C. §405(g) by reference). This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge on consent of the parties for resolution pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docs. 12, 13). For the reasons expressed herein, we will AFFIRM the decision of the Commissioner.
II. Background and Procedural History
The plaintiff, Mark Kalenkoski, a former security guard, filed applications for DIB and SSI in October of 2010, when he was only 25 years old, contending that his severe migraines, head problems, and dizziness prevented him from engaging in full time employment. (Tr. 156). Kalenkoski reported that he stopped working in October of 2008 to pursue his bachelor's degree, and in his application for DIB alleged that his condition became disabling approximately one year later, on December 20, 2009. Id .
Kalenkoski's applications were denied initially in January 2011. Following the denial of his claim, Kalenkoski requested an administrative hearing to appeal the initial denial of his claims. His request was granted, and on May 11, 2012, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gerard Langan in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Impartial Vocational Expert (VE) Fran Terry also appeared and testified during the proceedings. On October 22, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Kalenkoski's applications. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. On January 29, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Kalenkoski's request for review, making the ALJ's decision denying these claims the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court. 20 C.F.R. §§404.981, 416.1481.
On March 28, 2014, Kalenkoski initiated this action by filing a Complaint in this Court in which he requested that this Court reverse the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's applications and enter an order awarding benefits, or in the alternative, that this matter be remanded to the Social Security Administration for a new administrative hearing. (Doc. 1). On May 29, 2014, the Commissioner filed her Answer to Plaintiff's Complaint, in which she asserted that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and should not be disturbed. (Doc. 6). Together with her Answer, the Commissioner filed a copy of the administrative record. (Doc. 7). This appeal, having been fully briefed by the parties, is now ripe for decision. (Docs. 8, 10).
Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision that he is able to perform his past work as a security guard or "other work, " is based on a faulty residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment, and that the ALJ's decision at step five of the five step sequential disability analysis process was unsupported by substantial evidence because the hypothetical questions posed to the VE did not reflect all of Plaintiff's credibly established limitations. In response, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ's RFC assessment and the ALJ's decision at step five are both supported by substantial evidence.
A. Standards of Review-The Roles of the Administrative Law Judge and This Court
Resolution of the instant social security appeal involves an informed consideration of the respective roles of two adjudicators-the ALJ and this court. At the outset, it is the responsibility of the ALJ in the first instance to determine whether a claimant has met the statutory prerequisites for entitlement to benefits. To receive disability benefits, a claimant must present evidence which demonstrates that the claimant has 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." 42U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(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); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B).
1. The Sequential Evaluation Process
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, 416.920; see also Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999). If the ALJ 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(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). 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(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
Before considering step four in this process, the ALJ must also determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). RFC is defined as "that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s)." Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§404.1545, 416.945. In making this assessment, the ALJ considers all of the claimant's impairments, including any medically determinable non-severe impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1545(a)(2), 416.945(a)(2).
This 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, ...