United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
LESLIE A. POWERS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
LISA PUPO LENIHAN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Leslie A. Powers ("Powers") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The matter is presently before this Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (ECF Nos. 13 & 16). The record has been developed at the administrative level. For the reasons that follow, Powers' motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 13) will be denied to the extent that she requests judgment in her favor and granted to the extent that she asks for a remand, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 16) will be denied.
II. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
A. Procedural History
Powers filed an application for DIB on January 4, 2014, alleging that she had become "disabled" on November 5, 2010. (R. at p. 282). This application was initially denied on February 22, 2011. (R. at pp. 172-76). Powers responded on March 7, 2011 by filing a request for an administrative hearing, (R. at pp. 177-78), which was scheduled for March 7, 2012, (R. at p. 190).
The hearing was held on its scheduled date in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Joanna Papazekos ("Papazekos"). (R. at pp. 93-135). Powers testified at the hearing, represented by counsel. (R. at pp. 96-128). Tania Shullo ("Shullo"), an impartial vocational expert, also provided testimony concerning the expectations of employers existing in the national economy. (R. at pp. 129-34). In a decision dated April 18, 2012, the ALJ determined that Powers was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. (R. at p. 160). Following her receipt of the ALJ's decision, Powers filed a request for its review with Appeals Council on May 25, 2012. (R. at p. 226). On July 25, 2013, Appeals Counsel responded to Powers' request by vacating the ALJ's decision and remanding the case with detailed instructions as to how the record must be supplemented on remand. (R. at pp. 165-71). Among the requirements announced, the ALJ was to offer Powers a second administrative hearing. (R. at p. 170).
ALJ Papazekos held the second hearing on February 3, 2014. (R. at pp. 57-92). In addition to her own, Powers offered testimony from Michele Crochunis ("Crochunis"), her intensive service coordinator at the Staunton Clinic. (R. at pp. 84-91). Another vocational expert, Samuel Edelman, was present as well, but did not testify. (R. at p. 59). Following this hearing on April 25, 2014, ALJ Papazekos issued a 35-page decision, again denying Powers' claim. (R. at pp. 13-50). Powers requested Appeals Counsel review of this decision on June 24, 2014. (R. at p. 12). This request was denied on September 16, 2014, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at pp. 1-3). Powers commenced the instant action on November 14, 2014, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 1).
After the parties each gave consent to the adjudication of this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), (ECF No. 7), Powers and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment on June 1, 2015 and July 1, 2015, respectively, (ECF Nos. 13 & 16). Each motion was accompanied by a supporting brief. (ECF Nos. 14 & 17). Powers also filed a concise statement of material facts along with her brief, (ECF No. 15), and subsequently filed a reply brief on July 15, 2015, (ECF No. 18). These pending motions for summary judgment are now ripe for disposition.
B. General Background
Powers was born on April 30, 1967, making her forty-three years of age at the alleged onset date of her disability. (R. at p. 97). She is a high school graduate who has attended "a little bit of college" and "completed a Travel Tech program." (R. at p. 99). She was member of the United States Army for a brief period, having been honorably discharged after approximately six months due to medical problems with her left knee. (R. at p. 100). Powers has past work experience as a data entry clerk, a customer service representative, a bookkeeper, and an accounts payable clerk, (R. at p. 129), although she has not worked since November 5, 2010, (R. at p. 101). She is divorced and lives with her two school-aged children. (R. at p. 98).
C. Medical History
Powers has a history of treatment for both physical and mental conditions. Physically, Powers experiences back and leg pain which has progressively worsened following an accident on August 23, 2007 when she was struck by a car. (R. at pp. 104-06, 467). An MRI report dated September 18, 2008 shows that she was suffering from a "disc extrusion at T12-L1 and a disc protrusion at L4-5." (R. at p. 402). When treatments including pain medications, thoracic medial branch blocks, and chiropractic were insufficient to address her pain, (R. at pp. 25-30), Powers was hospitalized for three days beginning on July 10, 2012, while she underwent an "L3-L4, L5-S1 transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion procedure, " (R. at p. 929). After numerous complications stemming from this procedure, including an ongoing staph infection, she was hospitalized again on December 3, 2013 for "removal of hardware L3-S1 as well as lumbar irrigation and debridement and closure." (R. at p. 1122). Powers testified that her back and leg pain is worse following the surgery than it was prior to it. (R. at pp. 70-71).
With respect to her mental conditions, Powers testified that she has been suffering due to depression and bipolar disorder since 2002. (R. at p. 107). While she began engaging in individual therapy for her mental conditions at the Staunton Clinic ("Staunton") on April 12, 2011, (R. at p. 638), her prior treatment consisted solely of medication administered by her primary care physician, (R. at p. 646). Since the beginning of her treatment, Powers' treatment team at Staunton has consisted of James L. Saylor ("Saylor"), a licensed clinical social worker, and Dr. Phillip Dias-Mandoly ("Dr. Mandoly"), a psychiatrist. (R. at pp. 636-73, 710-25, 867-928). On average, Powers has ...