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Onley v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 10, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction

In this case, the plaintiff, Michael Onley, appeals from the partially favorable decision of the Commissioner of Social Security awarding him benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act after the Commissioner found that Onley was unable to work as of April 1, 2012. The jurisdiction of this Court is invoked pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. §405(g) by reference). This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for the preparation of a report and recommended disposition pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons stated herein, we recommend that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

II. Background and Procedural History

On November 4, 2011, Michael Onley presented to the emergency room complaining of pain and visual impairment in his right eye after two people jumped him and punched him hard in the face. (Admin Tr. 203). A CT scan of Onley's right orbital bones revealed fractures involving the floor and medial wall of the right orbit. (Admin Tr. 227-28). Onley underwent internal fixation surgery to repair the fracture on November 7, 2011. (Admin Tr. 222-225). Immediately after the surgery, Onley's visual acuity was checked and was found to be "good." (Admin Tr. 224). The record reflects that Onley did not seek out further medical care for complaints of eye pain and visual impairment - which he asserts relate back to the date of his injury - until February 21, 2012. (Admin Tr. 236). On examination, Onley's visual acuity in his right eye was measured as 20/40, and he was diagnosed with a dislocated cataract with vitreous prolapse. (Admin Tr. 237).

Between his injury and his decision to seek additional care in February 2012, Onley protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on January 24, 2012, and January 31, 2012. In both applications Onley alleged that, as of September 30, 2011, he was unable to work due to vision problems in his right eye. Both of Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on April 6, 2012. Onley then requested, and was granted, an opportunity to have his claims re-evaluated following an administrative hearing.

Also in early April 2012, Plaintiff's treating ophthalmologist, Dr. Coar, referred Onley to a second ophthalmologist, Dr. Tipperman, in Philadelphia due to the atypical presentation of his dislocated cataract. (Admin Tr. 268). At that time, the visual acuity in Onley's right eye was measured as 20/50. Id . The second ophthalmologist evaluated Onley in July 2012, diagnosed Plaintiff with a cataract and nuclear sclerosis in his right eye, and referred him to a retina doctor for surgery. (Admin Tr. 272). Onley underwent a pars plana vitrectomy and pars plana laminectomy without complication. (Admin Tr. 260-61). In September 2012, during a follow up examination, the visual acuity of Plaintiff's right eye was measured as 20/400. (Admin Tr. 291). It was noted that Onley was "coming along very well, " and that some of his vision issues may be related to refractive error. Id . In November 2012, during a follow-up exam regarding Plaintiff's continuing difficulties, he was assessed with pseudophakia of the right eye, and his ophthalmologist expressed concern that Onley may have damage to the optic nerve due to his prior orbital trauma. (Admin Tr. 276). Onley was advised that he should not expect his visual impairment to improve in the future. (Admin Tr. 44).

On May 1, 2013, Onley, with the assistance of counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michelle Wolfe in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Impartial vocational expert ("VE") Karen Kane also appeared and testified.

During the hearing, Onley testified that, contrary to his hospital records, he got injured on October 3, 2011. (Admin Tr. 41). Plaintiff reported that, as a result of his visual impairment, his balance is impaired and he gets periodic headaches. (Admin Tr. 44). Onley asserted that since July 2012, he has had only "slight" vision in his right eye, but admits that he has no problems with his left eye. (Admin Tr. 45). Due to these difficulties, Onley reported that he cannot read, often trips over objects, has difficulty grocery shopping without assistance because he cannot read labels, (Admin Tr. 46, 51). Plaintiff reported that vision in his right eye is not expected to improve. (Admin Tr. 47. 52). Onley also testified that he cannot lift or carry object weighing more than ten pounds due to a hip replacement in 1998 and because heavier weights strain his eye. (Admin Tr. 52).

On May 9, 2013, the ALJ issued a favorable decision in which she found that, as of April 1, 2012, Onley was under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. In her decision, the ALJ found that Onley met the insured status requirements of Title II of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2014, and proceeded through each step of the five step sequential evaluation process. (Admin Tr. 25). At step one, the ALJ found that Onley did not engage in any substantial gainful activity between his alleged onset date and the date of decision. Id . At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no medically determinable impairment prior to November 4, 2011. (Admin Tr. 25-26). She did, however, find that as of November 4, 2011, Onley had the medically determinable severe impairments of a comminuted displaced blowout fracture of the right orbit status post reduction and internal fixation of fracture; dislocated cataract with vitreous prolapse; subluxed crystalline lens; and pseudophakia right eye. (Admin Tr. 26). At step three, the ALJ found that the above medically determinable impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I, either individually or combined. (Admin Tr. 26-27).

Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Onley had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except:

the claimant can climb ramps but the use of stairs should be limited to entering and leaving the worksite and not part of job duties; no climbing of ladders ropes or scaffolds; occasional balancing and crawling; has limited eyesight with the right eye and thus needs the ability to turn his head left, right, up and down to use his left eye; any instructions or directions should be able to be given orally; no required writing or log keeping; no data entry or working with monitors or computer screens; can use his hands to pick up, grasp, handle and finger items, but due to vision no working with small products for inspection type work or assembling small products; should avoid moderate exposure to hazards such as moving machinery and no unprotected heights.

(Admin Tr. 27).

At step four, the ALJ found that, as of November 4, 2011, Onley was unable to perform his past relevant work as a laborer or warehouse worker. (Admin Tr. 30). At step five, the ALJ made findings with respect to each of Plaintiff's vocational factors. The ALJ found that, though Onley's chronological age was fifty-four (approaching advanced age) between November 4, 2011 and October 2012, a non-mechanical application of the age classifications required the application of a higher age category (advanced age) beginning April 1, 2012. Id . The ALJ also found that Onley has a high school education, and that Plaintiff's past relevant work was unskilled. (Admin Tr. 31). Considering these factors together with the above RFC, the ALJ found that, between November 4, 2011, and April 1, 2012, when Plaintiff's vocational age classification was fifty-four, Onley could perform the duties of a laundry folder (DOT 369.687-018) and maid-type cleaner (DOT 323.687-014). (Admin Tr. 31-32). The ALJ also found that, collectively, these two occupations existed in approximately 700 jobs in the regional economy. Id . Accordingly, the ALJ found that Onley was "not disabled" between November 4, 2011, and April 1, 2012. Id . However, once Plaintiff's vocational profile was consistent with that of a fifty-five year old worker on April 1, 2012, medical-vocational rule 202.04 directed a finding of "disabled" based solely on Plaintiff's exertional limitations. (Admin Tr. 32). Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled beginning April 1, 2012, and awarded benefits as of that date. Id.

Onley requested review of the ALJ's partially favorable decision awarding benefits by the Appeals Council. Plaintiff also submitted new evidence to the Appeals Council that was not before the ALJ when she rendered her decision. On September 23, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Onley's request for review.

On November 20, 2013, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a complaint. (Doc. 1). On February 25, 2014, the Commissioner responded by filing an Answer. (Doc. 11). Together with her Answer, the Commissioner filed a complete copy of the administrative record. (Doc. 12). Having been fully ...

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