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Ayers v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 9, 2015



DONETTA W. AMBROSE, District Judge.

Jennifer Marie Ayers ("Ayers") filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI) in November of 2010, alleging a disability beginning on December 18, 2009. (R. 15) The claims were denied on January 26, 2012 and, pursuant to her request, a hearing was held on January 17, 2013. (R. 26) Ayers testified at a video hearing. The ALJ denied the claim by written decision dated February 6, 2013.[1] (R. 14) Ayers 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. [8] and [11]). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. [9] and [12]). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, the ALJ's decision is affirmed.


Ayers was born on January 13, 1972 and was 40 years old at the time of the hearing. (R. 29-30) She has a high school education and has worked in the past at a supermarket, as a nurse in a nursing home and in a hospital. (R. 30) Ayers is a practical nurse. (R. 30) She stopped working because of an injury to her back sustained while transferring a patient. (R. 31) She received worker's compensation benefits for a two month period following her injury. The benefits were terminated, however, once an independent medical examiner determined that Ayers was capable of going back to work. (R. 35) Ayers testified during the hearing that she is unable to do household chores such as shopping, cooking or cleaning. (R. 39-40) Her family members help her in this regard. Ayers contends that the pain in her back has not abated despite physical therapy, a series of spinal injections, a TENS unit, and medication. (R. 40) Although she maintains her driver's license, she finds it difficult to drive. (R. 47) She also complains of various side effects from her medications such as drowsiness, loss of balance, memory problems and restlessness. (R. 47)

As stated above, the ALJ concluded that Ayers has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since December 18, 2009. (R. 16) Specifically, although the ALJ found that Ayers had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since the onset date, and that her back pain, shoulder impingement, and chronic diffuse body pain qualified as severe impairments, he concluded that those impairments or combinations thereof do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments. (R. 19) The ALJ determined that Ayers had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work. (R. 19-22)

Ayers attacks the ALJ's decision in two respects. First, Ayers takes issue with the weight accorded her treating source. Second, Ayers faults the ALJ for failing to elicit vocational evidence under the fifth step of the sequential process. For the reasons set forth below, I find each argument unpersuasive.


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 ...

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