United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
William J. Nealon United States District Judge
On June 23, 2014, Plaintiff, Kathleen Stancavage, filed this appeal under 42 U.S.C. § 405 for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 400-403. (Doc. 1). The parties have fully briefed the appeal. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner denying Plaintiff’s application for DIB will be affirmed.
Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on July 9, 2013. (Tr.54). This claim was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination (“BDD”) on August 19, 2013. (Tr. 54). On October 21, 2013, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Tr. 54). A hearing was held on January 16, 2014 before administrative law judge Timothy Wing (“ALJ”), at which Plaintiff, witness Carrie Michelle Trent, and vocational expert, Bill Keenan (“VE”), testified. (Tr. 99). On January 29, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff’s claims because, as will be explained in more detail infra, Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal any impairment Listing and Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with limitations. (Tr. 57-63).
On April 4, 2014, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. (Tr. 49). On May 1, 2014, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Plaintiff’s request for review. (Tr. 1-3). Thus, the ALJ’s decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on June 23, 2014. (Doc. 1). On August 26, 2014, Defendant filed an Answer and Transcript from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) proceedings. (Docs. 5 and 6). Plaintiff filed the brief in support of her complaint on October 10, 2014. (Doc. 7). Defendant filed a brief in opposition on November 6, 2014. (Doc. 8). Plaintiff did not file a reply brief. The matter is now ripe for review.
Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and insured, that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the date last insured. It is undisputed that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011. (Tr. 56).
Plaintiff was born in the United States on August 17, 1978, and at all times relevant to this matter was considered a “younger individual” whose age would not seriously impact her ability to adjust to other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c); (Tr. 206).
Plaintiff obtained her masters degree in social work, and can communicate in English. (Tr. 109, 209). Her employment records indicate that she previously worked as a cashier and dietician, and was a member of the United States Armed Forces (“ARMY”). (Tr. 211).
The records of the SSA reveal that Plaintiff had earnings in the years 1997 through 2006. (Tr. 194). Her annual earnings range from a low of seven thousand three hundred sixty-six dollars and fifty-eight cents ($7, 366.58) in 1997 to a high of nineteen thousand nine hundred thirty-three dollars and ninety-five cents ($19, 933.95) in 2004. (Tr. 194). Her total earnings during those nine (9) years were one hundred forty-nine thousand seven hundred eighty-five dollars and fifty-three cents ($149, 785.53). (Tr. 194).
Plaintiff’s alleged disability onset date is November 1, 2006. (Tr. 54, 206). The impetus for her claimed disability is a combination of lumbar spine problems and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (Tr. 210).
In a document entitled “Function Report - Adult” filed with the SSA in July of 2013, Plaintiff indicated that she lived in a house with her brother. (Tr. 241). From the time she woke up until she went to bed, Plaintiff would take her medicine, look at her calendar to see if she had to go anywhere, check her phone messages, deal with the Veteran’s Affairs Department for her doctor appointments, and go to the gym with her brother-in-law three (3) to five (5) times a week. (Tr. 241). She indicated that her PTSD made it hard for her to “control her mind, ” that she was easily confused, that she “checked out” of conversations with people, and that she hated going out in public alone without a “safety person.” (Tr. 241). She stated that she was slowing starting to go places, but that she would have panic attacks and anxiety that caused nausea when in public. (Tr. 241). However, she indicated she recently started going to doctor’s appointments and court alone as long as a familiar face was present. (Tr. 246). She experienced uneasiness when in crowds. (Tr. 242). She “felt best at home with the puppy, ” which she took care of by feeding it and taking it for walks. (Tr. 241-242). She experienced unusual fears of fireworks, fires, gunshots, fueling, helicopters, and planes, and was always “scanning . . . for enemies” when driving. (Tr. 248).
She had difficulty sleeping due to PTSD as a result of serving in the Army because she would have flashbacks and night tremors. (Tr. 242). She indicated that she had no problems with personal care, prepared her own meals three (3) to five (5) times a week for thirty (30) minutes at a time, did her laundry, engaged in light cleaning, and shopped in stores and online about once a month for over thirty (30) minutes. (Tr. 242-244). She could pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, and use a checkbook. (Tr. 244). When asked to check items that her illness, injuries, or conditions did not affect, Plaintiff did not check talking, hearing, seeing, completing tasks, or using hands. (Tr. 245).
Regarding her concentration and memory, Plaintiff needed special reminders to take her medicine and perform daily tasks such as taking out the trash, attending appointments, going to the gym, and for “basically everything.” (Tr. 242-243). Her attention span depended on her triggers for PTSD. (Tr. 245). She stated she followed written instructions “okay, ” and that she was bad with deadlines and reading small print. (Tr. 245). When asked how she followed spoken instructions, she responded that she needed to have instructions written or incorporated into her routine. (Tr. 245). She did not handle changes in routine or stress well. (Tr. 248).
Socially, Plaintiff left her house two (2) to five (5) days a week with “safety people” or her puppy, and would walk, drive, or ride in a car when doing so. (Tr. 244). She usually needed to be accompanied by a “safety person, ” or panic attacks would occur. (Tr. 244). She liked to be alone, did not enjoy communicating with others, and found one on one communication to be “less confusing.” (Tr. 245). Since her PTSD began, she felt a “numbness towards others, anxiety, and panic attacks if [there was] a change in routine or [at] a party/ family gathering [or the] grocery store.” (Tr. 245). She was a volunteer mentor for veterans at Northumberland County Veterans’ Court and helped sometimes volunteered at the veterans hospice. (Tr. 246). She liked to text others and use Facebook to keep in touch with “old military friends.” (Tr. 246). She attended a PTSD group in York, Pennsylvania every other Monday. (Tr. 246). In terms of how well she got along with authority figures, she preferred not to deal with them, and when necessary, she would be brief with little to no eye contact. (Tr. 248). Regarding medications, Plaintiff took the following prescribed medications: Seroquel, Darvocet, and Vicodin. (Tr. 249).
At her hearing, Plaintiff alleged that the following combination of physical problems prevented her from being able to work since November of 2006: (1) PTSD; (2) post lumbar anterior fusion back pain; (3) leg pain; (4) bilateral knee pain; and (5) foot pain. (Tr. 103). Plaintiff injured both knees while on active duty in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003. (Tr. 116-117). The back injury occurred when she was loading supplies onto a truck while on active duty in Iraq. (Tr. 116). Her back injury consisted of a pilonida cyst that required surgery to drain it. (Tr. 116). She was then on bed rest for a few weeks, and re-injured her back when was unloading a truck. (Tr. 116). Upon returning home from her tour, she returned to school at Bloomsburg University, and received her undergraduate degree in social work at the end of 2009. (Tr. 119). During her time at Bloomsburg University, she participated in two (2) internships part-time, with one (1) internship requiring her presence one (1) day a week and the other internship requiring her presence three (3) times a week. (Tr. 119). Her job during these unpaid internships was to go to the houses of elderly people when they fell to reset a button that they would use to call for help when a fall occurred, and she would also help with record-keeping. (Tr. 128). She stated that after a few weeks of her internship, she became friends with the people at work. (Tr. 128). She testified that she would do as much school work as she could to “avoid what was going on in [her] head.” (Tr. 120). When the topic of war was brought up in class, she would have to excuse herself from the classroom, especially when the topic of PTSD arose. (Tr. 121). She did not feel comfortable participating in groups larger than five (5) people, and would feel uncomfortable in the library, where she would sit in a corner while she studied so she could look at the door to see who was coming. (Tr. 129). She scheduled her back surgeries during breaks, and was on the Dean’s List her first semester. (Tr. 121-122). However, her grades went “downhill” after that, with her average grades being a “B” or above. (Tr. 122).
Plaintiff then obtained her masters degree in social work, attending class full-time and driving to Scranton approximately two (2) times a week from her Mount Carmel home and to the campus at “Life Geisinger” three (3) times a week. (Tr. 109-110). Plaintiff had back surgery, and then attempted to complete an internship, but ended up in the emergency room (“ER”) usually every other weekend because the full-day workweek of her internship caused her severe back pain that radiated to her legs. (Tr. 110-111). Because she was in school, she refused narcotic pain medication, and instead took Tylenol 3 for her pain. (Tr. 111). Her masters classes required her to give presentations and participate in research projects. (Tr. 113). She testified that she fell three (3) times between December and January despite using a cane, and had to use knee braces for walking around on campus to attend class. (Tr. 113). She stated that, in the summer of 2010, the school she attended gave her a handicapped parking permit. (Tr. 114).
Since November of 2006, when Plaintiff was discharged from the military, she had received disability payments, and collected unemployment from 2006 to 2007, but had no other income. (Tr. 118, 123). She testified that in order to obtain unemployment compensation, she had to testify that she was ready and able to work. (Tr. 123). She stated that large crowds and stores, her fear of going out alone, and her back and knee pain kept her from pursuing any full-time job since her discharge on November 1, 2006. (Tr. 124).
She testified that her physical limitations included being unable to bend over to pick something up from the floor or tie her shoes and difficulty walking. (Tr. 125-126). She had no problems driving with the exception of when she had her spine surgery, and that she would commute with others such as her cousin or close friend. (Tr. 127). From her house to Bloomsburg, it was approximately a forty (40) to forty-five (45) minute commute. (Tr. 127).
Plaintiff also testified about her PTSD. (Tr. 132). Her triggers included tasks such as vacuuming her car, which gave her flashbacks to when she was serving in Iraq and cleaning up blood and body parts. (Tr. 132). She had dreams in which she would die in aircraft, and explained that she had sleep problems due to events that happened while she was on tour in Iraq, such as being shot at and having to help a little girl injured in a “stool bombing.” (Tr. 133). She stated that her PTSD has worsened since her discharge from the military. (Tr. 135). She tended to drift off during conversations with others and would think about herself doing her job refilling airplanes and helicopters with gas while the engines were running. (Tr. 138). She saw a psychiatrist, but stated that she gave him very minimal information regarding her symptoms because she was in school and “didn’t . . . want to focus on [her] problems at that time.” (Tr. 136). Eventually, she started seeing a psychiatrist weekly, but when he became sick and suggested she attend a thirty (30) day camp for people with PTSD, she decided not to go, and stopped going to counseling altogether. (Tr. 136). Later, she found a PTSD group for women in York, Pennsylvania, and joined that the summer before her hearing. (Tr. 136).
At the time of her hearing, Plaintiff was taking the following medications: Tylenol 3, Cyclobenzaprine, Loratadine, Meloxicam, Ranitidine, Methyl Salicylate, Simvastin, Terbinafine, and Tramadol. (Tr. 131-132). She used a tens unit and heating and ice pads on her knees and lower back for pain relief. (Tr. 132). She was attending physical therapy at the time of the oral hearing for her lower spinal damage, and her therapy consisted of pool therapy. (Tr. 132).
At the time of her hearing, she testified that she was able to lightly dust and vacuum, but that she could no longer walk her dog due to increased back and leg pain. (Tr. 138-139).
Before the Court addresses the ALJ’s decision and the arguments of counsel, Plaintiff’s relevant mental health medical records will be reviewed in detail, beginning with records from his alleged disability onset date of November 6, 2006 through the date of last insured of December 31, 2011.
On February 12, 2007, Plaintiff underwent a screening for multiple physical and mental impairments, one of which was a PTSD screening. (Tr. 1030). Plaintiff answered “yes” to three (3) of the PTSD questions, and this score meant that Plaintiff was positive for PTSD. (Tr. 1032).
On March 5, 2007, Plaintiff had a forty-five (45) minute psychological evaluation for PTSD with Dr. Helene Chaplan. (Tr. 1025). Plaintiff’s eye contact and demeanor were appropriate, the rate and volume of her speech were within normal limits, her mood was neutral, her affect was appropriate to content, and there was no evidence of thought disorder or perceptual disturbance. (Tr. 1025). Dr. Chaplan opined that Plaintiff met criterion A through F of PTSD, ...