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McGonigle v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 31, 2015

PAYJE MCGONIGLE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM Docs. 1, 9, 10, 13, 14

GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.

I. Procedural Background

On October 18, 2010, 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. 132-38). On February 6, 2011, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied this application (Tr. 68-76), and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on February 16, 2011. (Tr. 77-79). On February 9, 2012, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (Tr. 22-67). On April 27, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 8-21). On June 4, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 5-7), which the Appeals denied on August 23, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4). On September 27, 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 December 9, 2013, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 9, 10). On February 24, 2014, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 13). On March 27, 2014, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 14). On June 16, 2014, the parties consented to transfer of this case to the undersigned for adjudication. (Doc. 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 10, 1962 and was classified by the Regulations as a younger individual on the application date and a person closely approaching advanced age on the date of the ALJ decision. (Tr. 17). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and no past relevant work. (Tr. 22). Plaintiff addresses only her spine impairment in her appeal, and the Court will limit its discussion accordingly.

A. Function Report and Testimony

On November 3, 2010, Plaintiff submitted a Function Report. (Tr. 158-169). She reported that "all of [her] activities" are restricted due to pain, and that pain interferes with her sleep and her ability to care for her personal needs. (Tr. 159). She indicated that she needed assistance with meals and could not stand for more than ten minutes due to pain. (Tr. 160). She reported problems lifting, squatting, bending, standing, reaching, walking, sitting, kneeling, talking, and climbing stairs. (Tr. 163).

On February 9, 2012, Plaintiff appeared and testified before the ALJ. (Tr. 22-67). She testified that she was not taking any pain medication because it hurts her stomach. (Tr. 33). She testified that she could not sit or stand for more than ten minutes, and has to sit down every five minutes when she is walking around to shop in stores. (Tr. 36-37). She testified ...


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