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Steinhoff v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 10, 2015



TERRENCE F. McVERRY, Senior District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Amanda Steinhoff, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), which denied her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 1381-1383(f). Pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 8, 10), which have been fully briefed (ECF Nos. 9, 11), and are ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion will be GRANTED IN PART, and the Commissioner's motion will be DENIED.

II. Background

A. Factual Background[1]

Plaintiff was born on May 7, 1987, and was twenty-five-years-old at the time of her hearing. (Tr. 61). Plaintiff has never engaged in substantial gainful work activity, allegedly due in part to grand mal seizures, depression, anxiety, migraines, and stomach problems. (Tr. 44).

Plaintiff also alleges multiple mental impairments, including a severe language-based learning disability. (ECF No. 9). While in the third grade, Plaintiff's Stanford Achievement Test results indicated that Plaintiff was in the twenty-third percentile for reading, and the nineteenth percentile for math. (Tr. 327). The results of a childhood IQ test that Plaintiff took at age nine, while in the fourth grade, indicated that she had a Verbal IQ of 93, a Performance IQ of 94, and a Full Scale IQ of 93. Id. A report from Plaintiff's elementary school's psychologist reflected that Plaintiff displayed "significant weaknesses [...] in the areas of written expression and organizational skills." (Tr. 328). Thereafter, Plaintiff enrolled in a learning support curriculum, and remained in the program for the duration of elementary school. (Tr. 291).

Plaintiff continued enrollment in the learning support curriculum for assistance in the language-arts throughout her high school career. (Tr. 262, 275). By her senior year of high school, Plaintiff received special education support for three-and-one-half (3.5) hours per week, and spent less than twenty-one percent (21%) of her time outside of the regular education classroom. (Tr. 275). While enrolled in this curriculum, Plaintiff had access to special accommodations. (Tr. 262-291). Plaintiff received teachers' notes, (Tr. 278), she was accompanied by a designated "note-taking buddy, " and used a word processor for extended written assignments. (Tr. 278). In addition, Plaintiff had special test-taking privileges, including having tests read aloud, (Tr. 291), and having extended time to complete exams. (Tr. 278).

Also, Plaintiff had similar special accommodations for her Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams, which she took in her junior year of high school. (Tr. 283). The results of these exams indicate that Plaintiff's performance was "below basic, " reflecting "little understanding and minimal display of the skills included in Pennsylvania's Academic Content Standards." (Tr. 330).

Grade equivalency tests taken during Plaintiff's junior and senior years of high school demonstrate that Plaintiff recognized and spelled words at a third-grade level, but that she exhibited reading comprehension skills at the ninth grade level and applied "math concepts" at her actual grade level. (Tr. 268, 277).

Reports documenting Plaintiff's success in her learning support curriculum indicate that she had "excellent" grades. (Tr. 267). Plaintiff's report cards indicate that she had below average, average, and above average grades throughout her high school education. (Tr. 256, 258). These reports also demonstrate that, despite her assistance, Plaintiff is "not able to keep pace with her non-disabled peers in lengthy written assignments." (Tr. 268). Plaintiff graduated from high school in 2005, at eighteen years of age, upon completion of "a combination of school district requirements and IEP [Individualized Education Program] goals and objectives." (Tr. 262, 269). Plaintiff later obtained an associate's degree from a "special education" technical college, having completed a dental lab technician program. (Tr. 43).

B. Medical Records Regarding Plaintiff's Mental Limitations

Medical records also reference Plaintiff's learning disability. In an examination conducted on December 7, 2011, Dr. Asha Prabhu, M.D., a psychologist who evaluated Plaintiff, concluded, inter alia, that her abstract thinking was intact and her intelligence was average based on verbal skills. (Tr. 409). Plaintiff presented with a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of 55 to 60.

Dr. Arlene Rattan, Ph.D., conducted a mental residual functional capacity ("MRFC") assessment of Plaintiff on December 23, 2011. (Tr. 71). Dr. Rattan concluded that Plaintiff had understanding and memory limitations, including moderate limitations in her ability to understand and remember detailed instructions. (Tr. 69). As a result, Dr. Rattan opined that Plaintiff could "perform simple, routine, repetitive work in a stable environment." (Tr. 70). Moreover, Dr. Rattan found that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in sustained concentration and persistence, amounting to limitations in the ability to carry out detailed instructions, to maintain attention for extended periods, and to perform activities within a schedule. Id. Dr. Rattan also found that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in social interactions, including her ability to interact with the public, her ability to accept criticism, and her ability to respond appropriately to supervisors. (Tr. 70-71). In summary, Dr. Rattan concluded that Plaintiff could "meet the basic mental demands of competitive work" despite her limitations. Id.

A treatment summary provided on November 6, 2012 by Jon Burdick, Plaintiff's outpatient therapist, indicates that she "presented with a high degree of intelligence with regard to her learning disability, " but that she otherwise reported "learning difficulties" and had been noted to have "particular difficulty" with some projects assigned to her between sessions. (Tr. 480). Moreover, Mr. Burdick noted that Plaintiff "demonstrate[d] good comprehension, " provided someone assisted her in her task. Id.

C. The Administrative Hearing

Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI supplemental security income on October 25, 2011, in which she alleged disability as of July 1, 1995 due to staring spells, migraines, obesity, anxiety, depression, and a learning disability. (Tr. 20, 22). Her claim was denied on January 11, 2012. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was conducted via video conference on December 27, 2012 before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 20). Plaintiff was ...

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