United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
William J. Nealon, United States District Judge
On October 8, 2014, Plaintiff, Jill Kucharski, 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 June 16, 2011. (Tr. 30). This claim was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination (“BDD”) on October 4, 2011. (Tr. 30). On November 3, 2011, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Tr. 30). A hearing was held on November 6, 2012 before administrative law judge Michele Stolls (“ALJ”), at which Plaintiff and vocational expert, Carmine Abraham (“VE”), testified. (Tr. 30). On February 4, 2013, 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 a full range of work at all exertional levels with non-exertional limitations. (Tr. 32-35).
On March 1, 2013, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. (Tr. 25). On August 12, 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 October 8, 2014. (Doc. 1). On December 22, 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 December 29, 2014. (Doc. 7). Defendant filed a brief in opposition on January 26, 2015. (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, 2016. (Tr. 32).
Plaintiff was born in the United States on December 17, 1968, 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. 171).
Plaintiff obtained her high school diploma, completed one (1) year of college, and can communicate in English. (Tr. 173-174). Her employment records indicate that she previously worked as a certified nurse’s aid and a customer service representative. (Tr. 198).
The records of the SSA reveal that Plaintiff had earnings in the years 1983 through 2008 and 2010 through 2011. (Tr. 152). Her annual earnings range from a low of four hundred eighty-six dollars and eighty-two cents ($486.82) in 1984 to a high of forty-six thousand eight hundred twelve dollars and fifteen cents ($46, 812.15) in 2004. (Tr. 152). Her total earnings during those twenty-seven (27) years were four hundred forty-five thousand seventy-one dollars and eighty-four cents ($445, 071.84). (Tr. 152).
Plaintiff’s alleged disability onset date is June 15, 2011. (Tr. 30, 171). The impetus for her claimed disability is Bipolar Disorder Type II. (Tr. 174).
In a document entitled “Function Report - Adult” filed with the SSA in July of 2011, Plaintiff indicated that she lived in a house with her family, and that she took care of her children and animals. (Tr. 191-192). From the time she woke up until the time she went to bed, Plaintiff stated that she “actually [slept] a majority of the day. . .” (Tr. 192). She stated that, “Anxiety [was] a huge issue for [her because her] bipolar [disease had] created a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in [her] everyday activities [and she] had thought of suicide on a regular basis . . . [and that she] tried to work [but was prevented by] her illness and state of mind.” (Tr. 191). She indicated that her husband did everything at home and “pre-planned for everything for when he [was] at work.” (Tr. 192). She stated that her illness has affected her ability to care for herself and her children, to maintain her house, and to hold a job, and that her medications made her “sleep all the time.” (Tr. 192). Plaintiff was able to prepare her own meals, but had a diminished interest in doing so due to loss of focus, even though she loved to cook before her illness began. (Tr. 193). Plaintiff was also able to load the dishwasher, do one (1) load of laundry per week, drive a car, and shop for groceries with her husband. (Tr. 193-194). When asked to check items that her illness, injuries, or conditions did not affect, Plaintiff did not check lifting, squatting, bending, standing, reaching, walking, sitting, kneeling, talking, stair climbing, seeing, or using hands. (Tr. 195).
Regarding her concentration and memory, Plaintiff needed reminders to shower, take her medicine, and complete her chores. (Tr. 192-193). She could pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, and use a checkbook. (Tr. 194). Plaintiff was able to pay attention for “30 minutes or so” and was not able to finish what she started. (Tr. 195). She stated she followed spoken instructions “not well at all [because she couldn’t] focus” and that she followed written instructions “ok” as she would re-read something until she understood it. (Tr. 195). She did not handle stress well as she would usually throw up from anxiety and stress. (Tr. 196). She was “ok with changes” in routine. (Tr. 196).
Socially, Plaintiff went outside everyday, and was able to go out alone most of the time. (Tr. 194). Plaintiff had a hard time maintaining friendships because she “was easily hurt or just moody.” (Tr. 195). She got along “fine” with authority figures, and had never been fired or laid off from a job because of problems getting along with other people. (Tr. 196). She noted that she was afraid that one (1) day she would kill herself due to her thoughts of self-worthlessness. (Tr. 196). Her medications listed included Cymbalta, Abilify, Trazadone, and Lamictal. (Tr. 197).
At her hearing, Plaintiff testified that since she completed the Adult Function Report, her husband did ninety-five (95) percent of the grocery shopping, did all the laundry, cooked, and left her a list of chores to motivate her to get out of bed. (Tr. 75, 83). She avoided driving because that is when her panic attacks occurred, so she would have her husband drive her when he could. (Tr. 65). Her typical day included excessive amounts of sleep, including during the day when her children were at school, and eating mainly at dinnertime, but also sometimes during the day. (Tr. 82).
In terms of vacation, she testified that she drove to Kansas with her youngest son in approximately March of 2011, and visited family there for two (2) weeks. (Tr. 68-69). The drive to Kansas took two (2) days. (Tr. 69). Plaintiff also admitted that she went on a vacation for one (1) week to Williamsburg in the summer of 2011. (Tr. 78). On this vacation, Plaintiff testified that she and her family toured Williamsburg for about two and a half (2 ½) hours, but Plaintiff cut the tour short because she was feeling anxious. (Tr. 78-79). Plaintiff stated she and her family spent most of their time at the pool during this vacation. (Tr. 78-79).
Plaintiff also testified about her work and school history. She stated that the last time she worked was for two (2) weeks as a customer service representative, and it was a “nightmare” because the training did not prepare her for the job, and she had constant thoughts running through her head that made it hard to focus. (Tr. 70). She could not remember what she was supposed to do, and she “kept making the same mistakes.” (Tr. 71). Plaintiff did not look for another job because she “was so upset and devastated and felt worthless from trying so hard to work and provide for [her] family.” (Tr. 71). She felt she could not work because her “anxiety [got] the best of [her] when [she was] expected to do something, like expected to be somewhere at a certain time . . .” (Tr. 71). She “hurt herself” before or during work to get out of having to work due to the anxiety “of knowing and having the pressure on [her].” (Tr. 71). Plaintiff’s work history included working in the IT department from 1999 to 2004, and as a customer service representative at Bank of America from 2006 to 2010. (Tr. 71-72). Plaintiff testified that in approximately 2010, she earned eighteen (18) credits at Lackawanna College, and made the Dean’s List. (Tr. 77-78). Plaintiff stated that she was not physically limited in her ability to work, that her husband’s two (2) business endeavors in the radio industry were her family’s source of income, and that she helped her husband with his business one (1) day a week, day and night, with data entry and connecting testing. (Tr. 62-63, 67).
In terms of finances, Plaintiff admitted that she had filed for bankruptcy in 2011, had her car repossessed, and that she and her family were still having financial difficulties. (Tr. 67). She testified that she would excessively spend money when going through a manic stage of her Bipolar Depression, but that she hadn’t had a manic episode like this “for a while.” (Tr. 81).
Regarding her children, at the time of her alleged onset date, Plaintiff’s two (2) adopted sons were ages six (6) and four (4), and she acknowledged that she took care of them. (Tr. 64). At the time of the hearing, her sons were ages eight (8) and six (6), and they were in school full-time. (Tr. 64). In terms of childcare, Plaintiff testified that her sons attended a summer camp for three (3) hours each day the summer prior to the hearing. (Tr. 72). Her husband drove them to camp, and she walked to pick them up and took care of them for the remainder of the day. (Tr. 72). She admitted to being friendly with her neighbors, and that they helped her with taking care of her kids by letting her sons play with their children during the summer. (Tr. 73-74).
With regards to treatment, Plaintiff admitted that two (2) medication changes and counseling that she was attending every two (2) weeks was helping her feel “a little better.” (Tr. 66, 74-75). She stated that at the time of the hearing, her panic attacks had settled down, and that she hadn’t had any “as of lately.” (Tr. 65-66). However, she also testified that she experienced morbid thoughts and “hurting other people to get out of doing things.” (Tr. 79). She testified that at least ten (10) times over the past few years, she hurt herself to ...