United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
Tonya M. Lawrence, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Social Security, Defendant.
RICHARD P. CONABOY, District Judge.
A. Procedural background
We consider here Plaintiff Tonya Marie Lawrence's appeal from the final decision of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying her dual applications for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DBI") and Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI"). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")who evaluated these claims found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with certain additional limitations (R.17) and that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform (R.24-25). Thus, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims and that denial became a final decision of the SSA when it was upheld by the Appeals Council on June 20, 2014. (R.1-5). Plaintiff appealed to this Court in timely fashion by Complaint filed August 15, 2014. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff's Complaint specifies seven alleged errors by the ALJ and asks this Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits or, in thealternative, remand this matter for a rehearing to "remedy the errors in the ALJ's final decision." (R.38-39).
B. Testimony Before the ALJ
Plaintiff was born on June 3, 1973 and was not quite 40 years of age on the date (April 23, 2013) of her hearing before the ALJ. Present at that hearing were ALJ Theodore Burock, Vocational Expert Paul Anderson, Plaintiff, and her Attorney, Cynthia Von Schlichten. Plaintiff testified that she is 5'1" tall and weighed 150 pounds. (R.38-39). She also testified that she was in the process of obtaining a divorce and that she currently rents an apartment which she is able to afford as a result of child arrearage payments she receives incident to a previous marriage. (R.39-40). Plaintiff has a driver's licence and drives "pretty much every day" for five to ten minutes getting back and forth to school. (R.40-41). She is studying to be a drug and alcohol abuse counselor since the fall of 2011 and had completed three semesters of course work toward that credential at the time of her hearing. (R.41).
Plaintiff stated that she became disabled on March 4, 2011 (Doc. 1 at 2; R.42) and that she has not worked at all since that date. (R.42). She had been receiving Workmen's Compensation payments previous to her alleged onset date and continued receiving them until approximately October of 2012 when she settled the Workmen's Compensation claim. (Id). She had been receiving approximately $600.00 weekly due to a work-related injury involving her back. (Id). Plaintiff's only income at the time of her hearing was the aforementioned child support arrearage payments. (R.43). She also stated that she is anticipating receipt of funding from the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation to help finance her education but that she has not received any financial support from that agency as of the date of her hearing. (Id). Plaintiff also stated that her counselors at the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation suggested that she get psychological testing with the aim that she "get some accommodations at school because I am having trouble focusing and concentrating." (Id).
Plaintiff also testified regarding back and shoulder pain and chronic pain syndrome. She stated that she has pain in her low back and all her joints. She indicated that her shoulders both bother her and that the left is more troublesome than the right. She stated further that she is right-hand dominant and that, while she has constant pain, some days are better than others. She indicated that wet or cold weather tends to make her pain worse. (R.44-46).
Plaintiff testified that she takes morphine, Neurontin and Tizanidine for her pain and also uses a Fentanyl patch. She is on a low dose of these narcotics and her use of them is closely monitored by her doctor because of her history of cocaine use. (R.46). She stated that she has not used cocaine in more than four years and that she attends AA meetings twice weekly. (R.47). Plaintiff testified further that these pain medications do curb her pain but they do not eliminate it. (Id). The medications have a side-effect of making her "tired a lot." (Id). Plaintiff stated that she took two to three months of physical therapy which neither helped nor hurt her and some injections which did not have much effect on her back pain. (Id).
Plaintiff also testified that when she awakes in the morning she still feels tired and attributes this to the medications she takes. (R.48). She related a history of a series of abdominal hernia surgeries that gave her problems when she walked and bent but noted that these symptoms got better over time. (R.49-50). She then described three separate suicide attempts. The first of these occurred when she stabbed herself in the stomach when she was 18; the second time she slashed her wrists; and the third time, which happened only two weeks before her hearing, involved another attempt to stab herself which was stopped by her boyfriend's intervention. The first two of these suicide attempts resulted in hospitalizations. (R.50-51).
Plaintiff advised that her last suicide attempt was triggered because she had been "gong through a lot lately." She stated that a combination of her financial problems, her pain, and depression had made her suicidal. (R.52). She denied further suicidal ideation at her hearing, but stated that she had gone to a psychiatrist who put her on a different medication for her depression. She also indicated that she was seeing a therapist with regard to her psychological problems for the first time since her third attempt at suicide. (R.54). She stated that she was taking medication to help with her depression and that it was helping although she also noted, once again, that she did feel tired. She could not say whether the fatigue she feels is a side effect of the new depression medication. (R.55).
Plaintiff testified further regarding her physical capacities as follows: She can: walk approximately one block before needing to sit and rest for approximately 20 minutes; lift approximately five pounds with both hands; stand for 20-30 minutes before needing to sit down or lay down; and sit for 45 minutes to one hour before needing to change position. (R.55-56). She stated that she can take care of her personal hygiene and cook but that she does not do any cleaning or laundering. (R.56-57). With regard to social activities, her only outlet is her weekly AA meetings which last one hour. (R.57). She started seeing an old boyfriend again about two months before her hearing. She stated that she smoked about one half pack of cigarettes each day but does not drink alcoholic beverages. (R.58).
Upon questioning by her counsel, Plaintiff stated that, while she has been attending school five days each week, she never has class for more than two and one half hours per day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays (her long days) she has an hour between classes. She finds school stressful because as an adult student she doesn't socialize well with her class mates. (R.59-60). She also stated that some days are better than others both with respect to her physical pain and her bipolar symptoms. She experiences at least one bad day each week and misses school often (R.61). Plaintiff has stated that she had been compliant in taking her medications prior to her third suicide attempt some six weeks before the hearing, but stated that immediately afterward her phys changed her medications. She stated that she no longer had suicidal ideation but was still experiencing daily crying spells and plans to address those with her physician. (R.60-62). Plaintiff also stated that when she is experience a bad day in terms of her physical pain, she must lay down on a heating pad with a pillow between her legs. She estimates that she missed five days of school in the previous semester because of her physical pain and bipolar symptoms. (R.62-65). She stated also that after one of her three hour days at school she is spent and takes a nap immediately upon arriving home. (R.65-66).
Also testifying was Paul Anderson, a vocational expert. Mr. Anderson stated that he had studied the record and was familiar with Plaintiff's work history. He characterized her past work as medium exertional work. In response to a hypothetical question that asked him to assume an individual of Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience with the residual functional capacity for sedentary work permitting a sit/stand option, and additional limitations that Plaintiff stand no more than 30 minutes and sit for no more than 45 minutes at a time, never climb, only occasionally stoop, bend, kneel, or crouch, have no exposure to cold or dampness, have no exposure to unprotected heights or dangerous machinery, be involved only in routine, repetitive work involving one or two step procedures, and only occasionally receive direction from supervisors; Mr. Anderson stated that Plaintiff could no longer perform any of her past relevant work but that she can perform various unskilled, sedentary jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. When the hypothetical question was amended to include the limitations that Plaintiff would be unable to sit/stand or walk in any combination for eight hours at a time and would miss more than two days of work each |month, Mr. Anderson responded that either of these additional limitations would render Plaintiff unemployable.
C. Medical ...