United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM Docs. 1, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.
I. Procedural Background
On January 4, 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. 168-71). On March 31, 2011, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied this application (Tr. 59-74), and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on April 5, 2011. (Tr. 87-88). On April 16, 2012, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (Tr. 30-58). On May 22, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 11-29). On July 18, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 9-10), which the Appeals denied on September 20, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-8).
On November 6, 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 12, 2014, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 10, 11). On March 26, 2014, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 12). On April 24, 2014, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 13). On May 2, 2014, Plaintiff filed a brief in reply ("Pl. Reply"). (Doc. 14). On November 19, 2014, the parties consented to transfer of this case to the undersigned for adjudication. (Doc. 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 December 21, 1971 and was classified by the Regulations as a younger individual through the date of the ALJ decision. (Tr. 23). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. Plaintiff has a limited education and past relevant work as a home attendant. (Tr. 23).
A. Function Report and Testimony
Plaintiff limits her discussion in her appeal to impairments related to her low back and lower extremity pain, and the Court will limit its discussion accordingly. (See, Pl. Brief; Pl. Reply). On February 14, 2011, Plaintiff submitted a Function Report. (Tr. 187-96). She reported problems sleeping and bathing. (Tr. 188). She reported spending only five to ten minutes cooking meals, and indicates that she eats microwaveable food most of the time. (Tr. 189). She indicated that she does "light" cleaning and "light" laundry, but needs help carrying clothes, cleaning, vacuuming, and taking trash out from her house. (Tr. 189). She admitted that she can go out alone, but reported that she needs someone to go with her if carrying things is involved. (Tr. 190). She indicated that she goes shopping once a month. (Tr. 190). She reported that her hobbies are watching television and reading, and that she spends most of her time "laying in bed." (Tr. 191). She indicated that she does not spend time with others. (Tr. 191). She reported problems lifting, squatting, bending, standing, walking, sitting, kneeling, and climbing stairs. (Tr. 192). She indicated that she had worsening pain every day since March of 2010 in her back, legs, and hips and that it lasts for hours at a time. (Tr. 195).
In a report dated January 25, 2012, she reported most of the same limitations. (Tr. 215). She reported limitations in her social activities, no hobbies, and difficulties with her personal needs. (Tr. 213). She indicated that she needs to take naps throughout the day due to fatigue. (Tr. 215).
On April 16, 2012, Plaintiff appeared and testified before the ALJ. (Tr. 30). She testified that her medications cause her pain and that her pain in her legs and back wakes her up at night. (Tr. 35). She explained that the medications cause drowsiness and she has to take them four times per day, which "leaves [her] unable to function to do anything, cook, clean." (Tr. 35). She indicated that her pain is constant and wakes her up at night. (Tr. 35). She testified that she could not lift her grandchildren and had a friend who does the shopping, laundry, and cooking. (Tr. 38). She testified that she spends most of her day laying down flat on her stomach. (Tr. 44). She ...