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Lepera v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 17, 2014



CERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.

I. Procedural History

On October 18, 2010, Stephanie Lepera ("Plaintiff") filed an application for Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), with an alleged onset date of June 10, 2008.

This application was denied, and on December 14, 2011, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), where Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (Tr. 42-88). On March 15, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to SSI because Plaintiff could perform a limited range of sedentary work (Tr. 14-20, Finding No. 4). The ALJ found Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work as a cashier, bartender, and van driver (Tr. 20). However, the ALJ further determined, based on VE testimony, that Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs existing in the national economy, including the representative jobs of label printer, weight tester, and order clerk (Tr. 73-74). On June 4, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner.

On August 2, 2013, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), to appeal the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying social security benefits. Doc. 1. On November 15, 2013, Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. Docs. 6, 7. In January and March 2014, the parties filed briefs in support. Docs. 9, 12. On April 30, 2014, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. In June and July, 2014, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. Docs. 14-17.

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 and Vocational Factors Relevant to Plaintiff's Ability to Work

Plaintiff was 33 years old on her alleged disability onset date (Tr. 20, Finding No. 6), and is a younger individual according to the Commissioner's Regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.963 (2013). She alleges disability due to "spine injury; bone disease; severe nerve damage; slipped disk; postpartum anxiety; learning disability; OCD; and arthritis" (Tr. 194).

At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff lived with and cared for her two young children (Tr. 52). Although she did not graduate from high school, she never attended special education classes (Tr. 195, 391, 394, 413, 416, 431, 433, 435-36). Her prior work history includes jobs as a bartender, cashier, and van driver (Tr. 195). She reported that she stopped working for "personal reasons" (Tr. 296). Despite Plaintiff's allegations of disabling limitations, she reported that she cared for her children; cared for her pet cat; prepared meals; performed household chores, including vacuuming and laundry; cared for her personal needs with some assistance; went outside; rode in a car; went out alone; shopped in stores; paid bills; counted change; handled a savings account; and used a checkbook/money orders (Tr. 180-83). She had no problem getting along with others, including authority figures, she was able to follow spoken and written instructions, and she could handle stress and changes in routine (Tr. 185-86). She reported that hot showers helped to relieve her pain (Tr. 189). Despite her allegations of pain, Plaintiff reported that none of her treating physicians prescribed a cane or other assistive device (Tr. 186).

B. Relevant Medical Evidence

1. Evidence Relevant to Plaintiff's Physical Impairments

a. John B. Chawluk, M.D. and Colby Powell, PA-C

In July 2008, Ms. Powell evaluated Plaintiff for pain in her low back, hip, and leg, paresthesias, and intermittent weakness (Tr. 330). Examination revealed intact vibratory and pin sensations, no dorsiflexion weakness, negative Babinski response, bilateral straight leg raising, full strength, normal gait, and normal heel and toe walking (Tr. 330-31). Plaintiff was alert and in no distress, she was able to rise from a squatting position without using her hands, and she reported that she used ibuprofen for pain (Tr. 330-31). Ms. Powell recommended an MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine as well as an EMG and nerve conduction study of her lower extremities (Tr. 331).

An MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed shallow posterior and right-sided disc herniation at L4-5, possible uterine enlargement, [1] and relatively mild posterior and right sided disc protrusion at T11-12 (Tr. 329). EMG and nerve conduction studies revealed generally normal results with the possibility of mild bilateral sciatica (Tr. 325).

On October 22, 2008, Plaintiff reported that she began physical therapy (Tr. 323). Examination findings were unremarkable and included symmetric reflexes; no dorsiflexion weakness; intact vibratory sensations; negative bilateral straight leg raising; normal gait; and normal tandem gait, and she recommended physical therapy (Tr. 323).

b. Geisinger Family Practice

In April 2011, Plaintiff reported that her back was stable (Tr. 363). On August 5, 2011, Denise Hintosh, PA-C, observed that Plaintiff was alert and oriented, her gait was normal, and her reflexes were normal and symmetric (Tr. 380).

c. Christopher Zacko, M.D.

In November 2011, Plaintiff complained of pain in her low back and legs (Tr. 340). Dr. Zacko's examination notes revealed excellent motor strength, normal gait, and no sensory deficits (Tr. 340). A lumbar spine MRI revealed degenerative changes at L4-5 (Tr. 340). When Dr. Zacko discussed pain management and surgical options, Plaintiff became frustrated and tearful (Tr. 340). She reported that she did not want surgery, but met with Dr. Zacko at her attorney's insistence (Tr. 340). Dr. ...

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