United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
CONNIE L. JONES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ARTHUR J. SCHWAB, District Judge.
Plaintiff, Connie L. Jones ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. The parties have submitted cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the record developed at the administrative proceedings. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 8) will be DENIED. The Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 11) will be GRANTED and the administrative decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.
II. Procedural History
Plaintiff protectively applied for DIB and SSI on June 2, 2011 alleging disability beginning April 29, 2011 due to a back injury/problems and asthma. (R. at 123-137, 165). The claims were initially denied on August 30, 2011. (R. at 54-73). On September 27, 2011, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing (R. at 84-85), and an administrative hearing was held on January 10, 2013 in Morgantown, West Virginia before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Terrence Hugar. (R. at 27-53). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (R. at 29-48). Timothy Mahler, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also testified. (R. at 48-53). In a decision dated February 7, 2013, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 14-23). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 22, 2014 (R. at 1-5), thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case.
Plaintiff commenced the present action on June 12, 2014 seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 1). Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on September 22, 2014. (ECF No. 8). Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on October 22, 2014. (ECF No. 11). These motions are the subject of this Memorandum Opinion.
III. Statement of the Case
A. The ALJ's decision
In his decision denying benefits to Plaintiff, the ALJ made the following findings:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time during the period at issue, i.e., since April 29, 2011 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq. ). (R. at 17).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; arthritis; history of asthma/chronic lung disease; and obesity (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). (R. at 17).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (R. at 17).
4. Throughout the period at issue, the ALJ found that the claimant has had at least the residual functional capacity to perform a range of work activity that requires no more than a "sedentary" level of physical exertion,  except she must be afforded a sit/stand option allowing a 1- to 2-minute change of position every 30 minutes; requiring no crawling, climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and no more than occasional performance of other postural movements ( i.e., balancing, climbing ramps or stairs, crouching, kneeling and stooping); and entailing no concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, wetness, humidity or respiratory irritants ( e.g., chemicals, dust fumes, gases, noxious odors, poor ventilation, or smoke) (20 CFR §§ 404.1529(e), 404.1567(a), 416.920(e) and 416.967(a)). (R. at 18).
5. The claimant remained capable of performing "vocationally relevant" past jobs as a customer service technician and tax preparer, either as previously performed by her or as such jobs are generally performed within the national economy (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965). (R. at 22-23).
6. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time during the period at issue, i.e., since April 29, 2011 (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f)). (R. at 23).
B. Medical evidence
A review of the medical evidence that predates Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date of April 29, 2011 reveals that she was treated for cervical and lumbar spine injuries after falling on ice in February 2003 and subsequently underwent chiropractic treatment and physical therapy. (R. at 207). On May 25, 2006, she was evaluated by Cameron B. Huckell, M.D., for ongoing complaints of neck and back pain. (R. at 211). Plaintiff reported that following the accident, she missed 12 hours of work and was later laid off from work in September 2003. (R. at 211). On physical examination, Plaintiff walked with a normal gait and was able to walk on her heels and toes showing good balance and coordination. (R. at 213). She exhibited a decreased range of motion of her cervical and lumbar spine (80% of full), and had intact sensation, reflexes, and motor strength of her upper and lower extremities, and her straight leg raise testing was negative. (R. at 213). Dr. Huckell reported that her cervical and lumbar spine MRI's showed disc herniations at C4-C5 and C5-C6, and she had annular tears at L4-L5 and L5-S1 with hypertrophic facets. (R. at 213). A cervical spine x-ray dated May 25, 2006 revealed spondylosis with foraminal stenosis at C5-C6. (R. at 213-214). Dr. Huckell was of the view that Plaintiff had suffered significant injury to her cervical and lumbar spine as a result of her fall in February 2003. (R. at 214). He diagnosed her with herniated disc of the cervical and lumbar spines without ...