United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
MAURICE B. COHILL, Jr., Senior District Judge.
Pending before this Court is an appeal from the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying the claims of Karen Montgomery ("Plaintiff' or "Claimant") for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et. seq. (2012). Plaintiff argues that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") should be reversed or remanded because the ALJ failed to call a Vocational Expert ("VE") to meet her "step 5 burden" of showing that there is other work in the economy for Plaintiff despite her non-exertional limitations. In addition, Plaintiff claims that her limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace were not incorporated into the ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") assessment and her Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") scores were not taken into consideration. For these reasons Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's decision to deny benefits was not supported by substantial evidence as required by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) [See generally ECF No. 12].
To the contrary, Defendant argues that the ALJ reviewed all of the evidence to make a proper RFC determination and that despite the functional limitations identified by the ALJ, Plaintiff is able to perform at least a range of simple repetitive tasks and that abundant jobs were available in the national economy for Plaintiff. Furthermore, the Defendant asserts that the ALJ is permitted to rely on Social Security Rulings to confirm that the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("the Grids") are a proper framework from which to determine the jobs available to Plaintiff in the national economy. Therefore, the ALJ's decision should be affirmed. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
For the reasons stated below, the Court will deny the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. In turn, the Court will grant the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.
II. Procedural History
On October 4, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI alleging disability beginning December 10, 2009 (R. at 21). The claim was initially denied on February 14, 2011 (R. at 21). On March 21, 2011, Claimant filed a written request for a hearing (R. at 21). A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on August 15, 2012 (R. at 21). Francis N. Kinley, an impartial Vocational Expert, also appeared during the hearing (R. at 21). Although informed of the right to representation, the Claimant chose to appear and testify without the assistance of an attorney or other representative (R. at 21).
On February 6, 2013, the ALJ, Joanna Papazekos, determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act (R. at 32). The ALJ stated that, "Based upon a thorough review of the evidence of record and the claimant's testimony, the undersigned finds that, pursuant to SSR 85-15, the claimant retains substantial abilities to perform unskilled work. This work is generally available in sufficiently large numbers in the national economy as the claimant retains the mental capacity necessary to meet the intellectual and emotional demands of unskilled, competitive, remunerative work on a sustained basis." (R. at 31).
On April 1, 2013 Plaintiff submitted a timely written request for review by the Appeals Council (R. at 16-17). On May 5, 2014 the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review thus making the Commissioner's decision final under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (R. at 1-6).
III. Medical History
There are various health notes from Birmingham Health Care on the record but none of the notes seem to address those medical issues under review for disability in this case. The ALJ determined the Plaintiff to have severe impairments of Alcohol Dependence, Cocaine Dependence, and Bipolar Disorder (R. at 23).
January 8, 2011 Plaintiff attended MDSI Physician Services in Utah with her chief complaints were low back pain, osteoarthritis of the knees, and foot pain (R. at 243). A full examination was conducted with mostly normal results. However, the physician noted vision difficulty and knee swelling and affected gait (R.at 244-246). Diagnosis by Michael Lyerly, MD (Neurology) was that Plaintiff has chronic low back pain. However, there did not appear to be any radicular findings on examination. There was evidence of swelling around both knees but Plaintiff still had full range of motion. The Doctor could not find any discernable reason for Plaintiff's foot pain (R. at 247). Despite Plaintiff's allegation of 20/10 pain levels, there was little objective evidence of severe pathology (R. at 248).
A psychiatric review was performed on Plaintiff on January 19, 2011 where Dr. Robert Estock found that her impairments were not severe (R. at 250). He did indicate that Plaintiff was depressed (R. at 253). Plaintiff was reported as having only mild limitations in activities of daily living, social functioning, and difficulty in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace with no episodes of decompensation (R. at 260). Doctor Estock prescribed Prozak for Plaintiff's depression (R. at 262).
On January 20, 2012 Plaintiff attended UPMC Shadyside Emergency Department with a complaint of Altered Mental Status due to drugs and alcohol (R. at 265). There were no medical issues diagnosed by Dr. Peter H. Adler and she was discharged when she became sober (R. at 266).
May 17, 2012 Plaintiff attended an appointment at Mercy Behavioral Health. At the appointment she complained of stomach pains and headache (R. at 288). She reported alcohol and cocaine use as well as smoking cigarettes (R. at 291-92). Plaintiff also reported withdraw symptoms. During her appointment Plaintiff's mood was depressed and she was irritable at times. She was tearful throughout the assessment (R. at 302). Plaintiff said she was clean for 13 years and was willing to enter drug rehabilitation treatment (R. at 302). Dual recovery intensive outpatient treatment was prescribed for Plaintiff (R. at 303). Present in the record are office treatment records from Mercy Behavioral Health dated May 30, 2012 to December 18, 2012, which include group therapy and one-on-one appointment with a psychiatrist.
On May 30, 2012 Plaintiff entered group therapy treatment with David J. Balbach, MA, LPC (R. at 311). Upon return to treatment Plaintiff's GAF was typically reported at 46 and gradually increasing. Plaintiff was active in the group discussions and reported finding benefits from sharing in the group process (R. at 327). David J. Balbach, MA, LPC a therapist in the adult treatment unit of Pittsburgh Mercy provided a December 4, 2012 letter indicating that Plaintiff was in treatment with him from June 1, 2012 to August 6, 2012 (R. at 282). She was seen for alcohol and cocaine dependence as well as Bipolar Disorder (R. at 282).
On June 18, 2012 Plaintiff had a medication change to Seroquel XR 300 mg OHS for Bipolar Disorder and depression, irritability and sleep. Topamax 100mg BID was prescribed for migraines (R. at 332). On July 2, 2012 ...