United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM Docs. 1, 10, 11, 12, 13
GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.
I. Procedural Background
On May 17, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1382-1383 (the "Act"). (Tr. 94-99). On November 15, 2011, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied this application (Tr. 55-72), and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on January 3, 2012. (Tr. 79-80). On September 25, 2012, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff - who was represented by an attorney - and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (Tr. 28-54). On October 16, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 12-27). On November 19, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 10-11), which the Appeals denied on September 10, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-9).
On November 5, 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 18, 2014, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 10, 11). On March 31, 2014, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of his appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 12). On May 2, 2014, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 13). On June 13, 2014, the parties consented to transfer of this case to the undersigned for adjudication. (Doc. 15, 16, 17). The matter is now ripe for review.
II. Standard of Review
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the denial. Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). 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 Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). In other words, substantial evidence requires "more than a mere scintilla" but is "less than a preponderance." 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)).
III. 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).
IV. Relevant Facts in the Record
Plaintiff was born on August 17, 1968 and was classified by the Regulations as a younger individual through the date of the ALJ decision. (Tr. 22). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and past relevant work as a production line worker, packing machine operator, and forklift operator. (Tr. 22).
A. Function Report and Testimony
On May 25, 2011, Plaintiff submitted a Function Report. (Tr. 136-49). He asserted that he could not work because of weakness, muscle spasms, pain, and lack of circulation in his leg. (Tr. 138). He reported that pain interferes with his sleep and his personal care. (Tr. 139). He indicated that pain precludes him from standing for more than five minutes and he cannot sit for long periods of time "due to bone remov[al] to repair [his] leg." (Tr. 139). He reported that he can cook complete meals but "with lots of preparation" he has to "sit." (Tr. 140). He admitted doing some household chores and yard work, but indicated that he only spent a "minimal" amount of time on them. (Tr. 141). He reported that he can drive, go out alone, and shop in convenience stores, although his wife "does the major shopping." (Tr. 141). He indicated that his hobbies were crossword puzzles, reading, and watching sports on television, but that he was "limited" in how long he can sit. (Tr. 142). He reported that he spends time with his family but does not go anywhere on a regular basis and does not go to social activities. (Tr. 143). He did not report any significant difficulties paying attention, following instructions, handling stress, or getting along with others. (Tr. 142-45). He reported that the pain in his back, legs, and feet was constant and had become unbearable in the past two years. (Tr. 146). He reported that he was taking Vicodin for his pain and that it caused no side effects. (Tr. 147).
On September 25, 2012, Plaintiff appeared and testified before the ALJ. (Tr. 30). He testified that he left his job in April of 2011 because it "closed down...the factor closed" and that he had received unemployment until March of 2012. (Tr. 37). He testified that swelling in his legs and a need to elevate them interfered with his ability to work. (Tr. 37-38). He explained his left leg was bowed and crooked and he had problems in the right leg because it was bearing all his weight. (Tr. 38). He reported that his leg symptoms were affected by the weather. (Tr. 45). He indicated that doctors attempted to surgically correct his leg by taking a bone graft from his pelvis. (Tr. 40). He admitted that his cane was not prescribed for him. (Tr. 40). Plaintiff also testified that impairments in his low back and left wrist affected his ability to work. (Tr. 40). He admitted he was right handed. (Tr. 41). He reported that his back "tightens up" after ...