United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
& ORDER OF COURT SYNOPSIS
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
Shelly Ann Perfetto ("Perfetto") filed an application for supplemental security income in November of 2010, alleging a disability beginning on November 23, 2002 based upon depression, anxiety, phobias and hepatitis C. (R. 154, 175) The claim was denied on January 21, 2011 and, pursuant to Perfetto's request, a hearing was held on March 27, 2012. (R. 29) Perfetto testified at the hearing as did Tania Shullo, an impartial vocational expert. The ALJ denied the claim by written decision dated May 10, 2012. (R. 13) Perfetto requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied. She then brought this action seeking judicial review pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos.  and ). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos.  and ). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, the Plaintiff's Motion is granted and the Defendant's Motion is denied. This case is remanded for further consideration.
Perfetto was born on June 4, 1965 and was 46 years old at the time of the hearing. (R. 874) She has a high school education and has worked in the past as a clerk, a receptionist, and a scheduler. (R. 176) Although substance free since June 20, 2010, Perfetto has a history of polysubstance abuse, including the use of crack cocaine, intravenous heroin, marijuana and alcohol between 1983 and 2010. (R. 911) She undergoes drug and alcohol counseling at Positive Pathways, has attended regular psychiatric visits since November or December 2011 and also sees a therapist twice a month. (R. 20) Perfetto lived on her own and in transitional housing during the relevant period. (R. 20, 40, 184, 772)
As stated above, the ALJ concluded that Perfetto has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since November 1, 2010. (R. 16) Specifically, although the ALJ found that Perfetto had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity, and that her bipolar disorder, polysubstance abuse and hepatitis qualify as severe impairments, those impairments or combinations thereof do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments. (R. 18) With respect to Perfetto's mental impairments, the ALJ concluded that she had only mild limitation in the activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and no demonstrated episodes of decompensation. (R. 18-19) The ALJ also found that, although Perfetto's mental impairments have been severe for the required two year period under "paragraph C, " and are currently attenuated by medication or psychosocial support, Perfetto had not demonstrated a history of 1 or more years of inability to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement "or that her mental impairments have caused repeated episodes of decompensation, or that even minimal increases in mental demands or changes in the environment would cause decompensation." (R. 19) The ALJ found that Perfetto had the residual functional capacity to perform light work with certain restrictions and that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (R. 19-24)
Perfetto assigns several errors to the ALJ's decision. Specifically, Perfetto challenges the ALJ's evaluation of treating specialists and therapists. She also urges that the ALJ failed to take into consideration the act that Perfetto's treatment was taking place in a structured living environment. Perfetto similarly criticizes the ALJ's findings regarding credibility. Finally, Perfetto assigns error to the ALJ's findings regarding residual functional capacity. For the reasons set forth below, I find that a remand is required.
II. LEGAL ANALYSIS
A) Standard of Review
The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See, 5 U.S.C. §706.
To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).
The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404, subpt. P., appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.
A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny ...