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Todaro v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 25, 2015

CHARLA RENEE TODARO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT SYNOPSIS

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 10 and 12). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 11 and 13). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 12) and granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 10) to the extent that the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the Opinion that follows.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") and for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. On or about June 16, 2011, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI. In both applications, she alleged that since May 1, 2009, she had been disabled due to major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, migraine headaches, post-operative left foot complications, and a possible blood-clotting disorder. (R. 187-96, 227). Her last date insured was December 31, 2014. (R. 12). The state agency denied her claims initially, and she requested an administrative hearing. (R. 110-120). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Charles Pankow held a hearing on August 15, 2012, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 30-62). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. (R. 58-62). In a decision dated October 17, 2012, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 12-23). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on April 10, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-3). Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 10 and 12). The issues are now ripe for my review.

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 she 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. § 1382(a)(3)(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, 416.920. 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, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her 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 v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

B. WHETHER THE ALJ ERRED BY FAILING TO EVALUATE THE EFFECTS OF PLAINTIFF'S MIGRAINE HEADACHES ON HER ABILITY TO WORK ON A REGULAR AND CONTINUING BASIS.

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including low back pain, foot pain, headaches, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. (R. 14). He further found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except she was limited to occasional performance of postural maneuvers, such as balancing, kneeling, climbing, crouching, stooping, and crawling. In addition, Plaintiff was limited to unskilled work performed in a low stress environment, defined as few changes in work settings and no fast pace or quota production standards, and she was limited to occasional contact with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. Id. at 18.

Plaintiff argues that this RFC finding is deficient because, despite finding her headaches to be a severe impairment, the ALJ failed to include any migraine headache related limitations in the RFC finding, and/or otherwise discuss in his opinion any evidence regarding the effects of her migraine headaches on her ability to work. See Pl.'s Br. [ECF No. 11] at 3-7. After careful review of the record, including the ...


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