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Dennis v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 25, 2015



GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.


I. Introduction

The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying the application of Plaintiff Caroline B. Dennis for supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-433, 1382-1383 (the "Act"). The ALJ must craft a residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment based on medical evidence, but may not base the RFC by substituting lay inferences for that of a competent medical professional. Consequently, RFC assessments in excess of all medical opinions generally lack substantial evidence. Here, Plaintiff's treating physician and the state agency consultative examiner both opined that Plaintiff could not perform even sedentary work, but the ALJ concluded that she could perform a range of sedentary work full time. Plaintiff's activities of daily living were severely limited and objective evidence supported her claims, so the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's RFC in excess of all of the medical opinions lacks substantial evidence. As a result, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's appeal be granted, the decision of the Commissioner be vacated, and the matter be remanded for further proceedings.

II. Procedural Background

On March 10, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI under the Act. (Tr. 90-96). On June 2, 2011, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied this application (Tr. 65-77), and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on July 15, 2011. (Tr. 115-16). On April 19, 2012, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (Tr. 30-63). On July 2, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 10-29). On August 13, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 8-9), which the Appeals Council denied on September 12, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6).

On October 9, 2013, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to appeal the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1). On February 15, 2014, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 11, 12). On April 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 16). On April 30, 2014, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. On May 21, 2014, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 17). On July 14, 2014, Plaintiff notified the Court that she would not be filing a brief in reply. (Doc. 20). The matter is now ripe for review.

III. Standard of Review

When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the denial. Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is "less than a preponderance" and requires only "more than a mere scintilla." Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

IV. Sequential Evaluation Process

To receive disability or supplemental security benefits, a claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act requires that a claimant for disability benefits show that he has a physical or mental impairment of such a severity that:

He is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner uses a five-step evaluation process to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999). If the Commissioner finds that a Plaintiff is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not proceed. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Commissioner must sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment from 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("Listing"); (4) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Before moving on to step four in this process, the ALJ must also determine Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

The disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). The ultimate burden of proving disability within the meaning of the Act lies with the claimant. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a).

V. Relevant Facts in the Record

Plaintiff was born on January 27, 1964 and was classified by the regulations as a younger individual through the date of the ALJ decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. (Tr. 25). Plaintiff has at least a high school education and past relevant work as a telemarketer. (Tr. 25).

On December 2, 1990, Plaintiff suffered a head injury in a motor vehicle accident. (Tr. 188, 245). Her boyfriend died and her ten-month old son suffered a spinal cord injury. (Tr. 245, 252). She was hospitalized at Community Medical Center through December 20, 1990, and was not aware of the death of her boyfriend or the injury to her child. (Tr. 252). On December 20, 1990, Plaintiff was transferred to the John Heinz Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. (Tr. 252). Notes indicate that:

CAT scan showed an area of intracerebral hemorrhage in the area of the intraventricular septum... Repeat CAT scan showed resolution of this area of hemorrhage, however, small bilateral frontal subdural hygromas ...

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