United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MARTIN C. CARLSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
The Plaintiff, Matthew Markoch, appeals from the unfavorable decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying him benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The jurisdiction of this Court is invoked pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for resolution on consent of the parties, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docs. 18, 19).
For the reasons stated herein, the final decision of the Commissioner will be Affirmed.
II. Background and Procedural History
The triggering incident that led Mr. Markoch to apply for benefits appears to have occurred on December 10, 2010, when Markoch presented to the emergency department while under the influence of bath salts. (Admin Tr. 139). Because Markoch’s behavior was manic, and he had apparently ceased taking the medications prescribed by his treating psychiatrist Dr. Rinehouse, he was transferred to another facility for inpatient psychiatric care. (Id.) Markoch remained in inpatient treatment for three days before being discharged. (Admin Tr. 133). Hospital records reflect that during this episode Markoch believed that he had crossed into heaven. (Admin Tr. 136). Markoch also recalled that while in the throes of this psychotic episode, he experienced an extended, drug-induced delusion that he was Jesus Christ. (Admin Tr. 240).
On January 26, 2011, Markoch filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), alleging that, beginning December 9, 2010, he was unable to work due to bipolar disorder and severe anxiety disorder. (Admin Tr. 113). His claim was initially denied on March 30, 2011. Markoch then sought, and was granted, an opportunity to have his claims evaluated during an administrative hearing. On September 5, 2012, Markoch, with the assistance of counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Impartial vocational expert (“VE”) Karen Kane also appeared and testified at this hearing.
During the administrative hearing, Markoch testified that he has a high school education, can read and write, and can perform basic math. (Admin Tr. 31). Markoch also reported that, he met with a psychiatrist every six weeks, met with a social worker every “couple” of weeks, and attended daily meetings with a support group for recovering alcoholics. (Admin Tr. 32- 33). Markoch further reported that he was able to take care of his own personal hygiene but relied on his significant other, Bernice Markowski, to do most household chores. (Admin Tr. 33). Notes from therapy sessions with Licensed Clinical Social Worker (“LCSW”) Joan Behm confirmed that Ms. Markowski did indeed complete most household chores, but that she did so based on her belief that Markoch does these chores incorrectly. (Admin Tr. 211). Markoch testified that he was taking several prescription medications to manage his symptoms, and admitted that his medications were “all doing their job.” (Admin Tr. 36). However, he also reported that he experiences several side effects including sleep disturbance, weight gain, and tremors. Id.
Markoch reported that he had difficulty with social functioning. (Admin Tr. 38). He also attested to difficulty concentrating, and admitted that he lacked the ability to finish reading a book or newspaper. Id. Markoch reported difficulty with pace and making judgments; he was asked to resign from a job when he was unable to meet productivity requirements. (Admin Tr. 39). Despite these limitations, therapy records revealed that in November 2011, Markoch began actively seeking part-time work. (Admin Tr. 211). Further, after he was asked to resign from a part-time job held he held for a few weeks in December 2011, Markoch continued to look for work and even received a call about a job interview in February 2012. (Admin Tr. 208, 209).
On November 19, 2012, the ALJ denied Markoch’s application in a written decision. As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found that Markoch met the insured status requirement of Title II of the Social Security Act though December 31, 2014. (Admin Tr. 14). The ALJ then proceeded through each step of the five-step sequential evaluation process.
At step one, the ALJ found that Markoch did not engage in substantial gainful activity between December 9, 2010, and November 19, 2012. (Admin Tr. 14). At step two, the ALJ found that Markoch suffered from the medically determinable severe impairments of bipolar disorder and polysubstance abuse and dependence. (Id.)At step three, the ALJ found that, during the relevant period, Markoch did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Admin Tr. 14-16).
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Markoch had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations:
the claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks of a low stress nature which is defined as only occasional decision-making and only occasional changes in the work setting. He must avoid interaction with the public and can only occasionally interact with co-workers.
(Admin Tr. 16). In doing so, the ALJ was required to weigh the medical an other opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p, and 06-3p. The record in this case contains medical opinions by the following “acceptable medical sources:” treating psychiatrist Jeanne A. Rinehouse, M.D., (Admin Tr. 187-93); nontreating psychologist Jeffrey Fremont, Ph.D., (Admin Tr. 253-55); nontreating psychologist Thomas Smith, Psy.D., (Admin Tr. 234-42); and nonexamining psychologist John D. Chiampi, Ph.D. (Admin Tr. 50- 52). The examining sources also provided global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) scores. Additionally, the record contains opinions by sources that are not considered to be “acceptable medical sources, ” including a GAF assessment by LCSW Behm, (Admin Tr. 221), and a function report by Ms. Markowski. (Admin Tr. 104-111).
At step four, the ALJ found that Markoch was unable to meet the demands of his past relevant employment as a parts counter person. (Admin Tr. 19). At step five, considering the above RFC and Markoch’s vocational factors, and despite his inability to perform his past work, the ALJ found that there was other work existing in significant numbers that Markoch could do. (Admin Tr. 20). The ALJ based her determination on testimony by a VE that an individual with the above RFC could perform the representative occupations of video monitor, laundry folder, laundry worker, and warehouse worker, which collectively exist in approximately 1, 100 jobs in the regional economy and in larger numbers in the state an national economy.
Following the ALJ’s unfavorable decision, Markoch sought review by the Appeals Council. Markoch also submitted additional opinion evidence to the Appeals Council that was not before the ALJ when she rendered her decision. (Admin Tr. 5, 122-23). His request for review was denied on January 8, 2014.
On April 23, 2014, Markoch initiated this action by filing a complaint in which he requests that we reverse the Commissioner’s decision and enter an order awarding benefits, or in the alternative vacate the decision of the Commissioner and remand for a new administrative hearing. (Doc. 1). On July 8, 2014, the Commissioner filed her answer, in which she contends that the final decision denying Markoch’s application for benefits is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 8). Together with her answer, the Commissioner filed a copy of the administrative record. (Doc. 9). This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is now ripe for decision. (Docs. 14, 15, 17).
Markoch asserts that the ALJ’s conclusion at step five of the sequential evaluation process outlined below is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Markoch alleges that the ALJ’s assessment of his RFC is premised upon an improper evaluation of the medical and nonmedical source opinions of record. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ’s evaluation of medical and nonmedical source opinions of record is proper, and is supported by substantial evidence.
A. Standards of Review–The Roles of the Administrative Law Judge and This Court
Resolution of the instant social security appeal involves an informed consideration of the respective roles of two adjudicators–the ALJ and this court. At the outset, it is the responsibility of the ALJ in the first instance to determine whether a claimant has met the statutory prerequisites for entitlement to benefits. To receive disability benefits, a claimant must present evidence which demonstrates that the claimant has 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 ...