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Jacobs v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 3, 2017


          KANE JUDGE.



         I. Introduction

         The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”) denying the application of Plaintiff for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-433, 1382-1383 (the “Act”), and Social Security Regulations, 20 C.F.R. §§404 et seq., 416 et seq. (the “Regulations”).

         Plaintiff was developmentally delayed, and began receiving child disability benefits when she was two years old. Doc. 16. By eighth grade, she functioned “commensurate with her chronological age” and her IQ tested in the average range. (Tr. 303, 310). The Bureau of Disability Determination terminated Plaintiff's benefits when it redetermined her eligibility under adult rules after she turned eighteen years old. Doc. 16. The relevant period runs from June 20, 2012 through May 15, 2014, the date of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) decision, when she was twenty years old. Doc. 16.

         Plaintiff carried diagnoses of asthma and kidney stones, but received no treatment for asthma or kidney stones and made no complaints to medical providers about asthma or kidney stones during the relevant period. Doc. 16. The ALJ reasonably found that neither asthma nor kidney stones disabled Plaintiff between June of 2012 and May of 2014. Doc. 16. Plaintiff treated with a psychiatrist for medication management on a declining dose of medications through May of 2013 for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”), and learning disorder by history. Doc. 16. She reported few symptoms, exhibited normal mental findings, and stopped treating entirely for a year. Doc. 16. She stopped taking Adderall for ADHD at the beginning of the relevant period and denied obsessions and compulsions at every visit. Doc. 16. She reported stable moods, denied anxiety and depression, and indicated that she got along well with friends, family, and her long-term boyfriend. Doc. 16. Her psychiatrist typically assessed a global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) of 60, which indicates only mild symptoms or functional impairment, and two expert psychiatrists who reviewed Plaintiff's file indicated that she could perform simple, unskilled work. Doc. 16. Plaintiff reported in support of her claims for benefits that she had severe symptoms and additional diagnoses, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but these reports were contradicted by the diagnoses in her medical records, her reports in the medical records, normal observations on mental status examination, conservative treatment with no hospitalizations throughout and no treatment whatsoever for one year of the relevant period, and the two medical experts who opined she could do light work. Doc. 16. No medical opinion supports Plaintiff's claims. Doc. 16.

         The statements Plaintiff made in support of her application for benefits support her claim, but the Regulations do not require the ALJ to accept those statements. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1529. If the ALJ identifies factors that contradict those statements, then the ALJ may reject them. Id. The Regulations allow the ALJ to find that conservative treatment, an absence of complaints in medical records, normal mental status findings and average IQ, and multiple medical expert opinions contradict Plaintiff's statements to the agency and to the Court. Id. Plaintiff had diagnosed medical impairments, but those impairments do not mean she is disabled. See Jones v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 125, 128 (3d Cir. 1991) (There is no “presumption that a mere diagnosis…renders an applicant eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act”). Plaintiff bears the burden to produce evidence that demonstrates she is disabled, and the only evidence that she was disabled are statements made to the agency and the Court, which the ALJ properly discounted. 42 U.S.C.A. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i). Plaintiff failed to produce credible evidence of disability.

         The Court is not unsympathetic. Plaintiff suffers from medical conditions which limit her and make it more difficult for her to find a job. Townsend v. Sec'y of Health, Ed. & Welfare, 325 F.Supp. 982, 986 (E.D. Ky. 1971) (despite “sympathy for claimants who have worked as laborers for many years and who have physical ailments which cause them discomfort, ” claimants bear the “burden, however, of proving their entitlement to benefits under the Act”). However, the Act does not award disability benefits to individuals who cannot get hired for a job. Reed v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 08-2072, 2009 WL 1106576, at *1 (C.D. Ill. Apr. 3, 2009), report and recommendation adopted, No. 08-CV-2072, 2009 WL 1106577 (C.D. Ill. Apr. 23, 2009) (“one can sympathize with Plaintiff's difficulties with finding a job, ” but if “jobs exist which a claimant could perform, he will not be entitled to disability benefits”) (internal citations omitted); Fields v. Celebrezze, 218 F.Supp. 334, 337 (E.D. Ky. 1963) (“impairments and injuries of great severity have been held insufficient to establish entitlement to the benefits of the Act. The definition of disability for the present purpose is a narrow one and this court is constantly mindful of its obligation to apply the statute as it is drawn, not according as its natural sympathies may lie”). The Act only awards benefits to individuals who cannot perform a job, even the easiest, least demanding job in the economy. Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003). There may not be any job openings in the easiest, least demanding position, but that is an issue for unemployment programs, not disability. Schmiedigen v. Celebrezze, 245 F.Supp. 825, 827 (D.D.C 1965) (Social Security benefits “are not gratuities or matters of grace; they are not public assistance; they are not welfare payments”); Evans v. Celebrezze, 237 F.Supp. 1021, 1023 (E.D. Ky. 1965) (“Despite our natural sympathy for the plight of the plaintiff, we have no power or authority to award unemployment compensation under the guise of disability insurance under the provisions of the Social Security Act here involved”); Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1465 (9th Cir. 1995) (“Although we sympathize with individuals like Flaten who earnestly believe that their disability prevented their return to work, we cannot disregard the Social Security Act's eligibility requirements”). Unless Plaintiff's medical conditions would make her incapable of performing the easiest, least demanding job in the economy, if she was offered the job, she is not entitled to benefits.

         More specifically, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's denial of benefits. See Reed v. Bowen, 833 F.2d 1005 (4th Cir. 1987) (“As is not infrequently the case, an appeal of a Social Security case in which the district court has upheld the Secretary's denial of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits wends its way to us heavily laden with sympathetic considerations in favor of the Social Security petitioner. Fortunately or unfortunately, it is not our function to decide appeals as we would have preferred to see them decided if we had been the finder of fact. The fact-finder is the Secretary; if substantial evidence supports the conclusion of the Secretary, the decision should be affirmed”) (internal citation omitted); Bowman v. Heckler, 706 F.2d 564, 566-67 (5th Cir. 1983) (“Like many of the social security disability benefit cases that come before us, Ms. Bowman's case evokes our sympathy… But our role in reviewing disability determinations by the Secretary is circumscribed by the statute. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Supp. V 1981)…While we need not be hard hearted, we must be cool tempered: if the Secretary's findings are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive”) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is a low standard. Id. Even if the Court would have decided differently, the Court must uphold the decision unless it was so unreasonable that the Court would direct a verdict in Plaintiff's favor if the issue were before a jury. Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003). Here, the Court would not direct a verdict in Plaintiff's favor if the issue before a jury. Id. The Court recommends that Plaintiff's appeal be denied, the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed, and the case closed.

         II. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff began receiving disability benefits in 1996, when she was two years old. (Tr. 61-68). Her benefits were redetermined under adult rules in June of 2012, and a new application was consolidated with the redetermination. (Tr. 61-68). On June 20, 2012, her benefits ceased. (Tr. 61-68). Plaintiff requested reconsideration, which was denied on June 3, 2013. (Tr. 77-84). Plaintiff requested a hearing. (Tr. 85-87). On November 26, 2013, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was not represented by an attorney-appeared. (Tr. 55-60). The ALJ continued the hearing to January 30, 2014 so that Plaintiff could obtain counsel. (Tr. 55-60, 166). Plaintiff obtained counsel, who was unable to attend the January 30, 2014 hearing, so the hearing was continued. (Tr. 166). On April 2, 2014, the state agency notified Plaintiff of a hearing scheduled for April 22, 2014, and Plaintiff acknowledged receiving the notice on April 14, 2014. (Tr. 53, 167- 86). On April 22, 2014, Plaintiff failed to appear at the hearing, although counsel was present, and the ALJ obtained testimony from a vocational expert. (Tr. 47-52). The ALJ issued a Notice to Show Cause for Failure to Appear, and Plaintiff responded on April 24, 2014 indicating that her mother had surgery on April 22, 2014, she had no transportation or gas money, and her mental impairments prevented her from attending. (Tr. 207). The ALJ found that Plaintiff failed to show good cause, noting that Plaintiff did not report transportation difficulties when she acknowledged she would be at the hearing a week earlier, did not contact her representative or the state agency to inform them she was unable to attend, and that she had attended a previous hearing despite alleged mental difficulties, which were also unsupported by the medical records. (Tr. 38). On May 15, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 28-46). On November 10, 2015, the Appeals Council declined review, rendering the ALJ decision the “final decision” of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-9). See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         On December 22, 2015, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to appeal the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1). On February 25, 2016, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 15, 16). On April 7, 2016, May 27, 2016, October 18, 2016, and November 3, 2016, Plaintiff filed pro se briefs in support of the appeal (“Pl. Briefs”). (Docs. 17, 18, 20, 21, 23). On May 11, 2016 and October 25, 2016, Defendant filed briefs in response (“Def. Briefs”). (Docs. 19, 22). On November 11, 2016, the case was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. The matter is now ripe for review.

         III. Standard of Review and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To receive DIB or SSI, a claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act requires that a claimant for disability benefits show that he has a physical or mental impairment of such a severity that:

He is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner uses a five-step evaluation process to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the Commissioner finds that a Plaintiff is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not proceed. Id. The Commissioner must sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment from 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listing”); (4) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. Id. Before step four, the ALJ must also determine Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id.

         The disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. See Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). The ultimate burden of proving disability within the meaning of the Act lies with the claimant. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). Specifically, the Act provides that:

An individual shall not be considered to be under a disability unless he furnishes such medical and other evidence of the existence thereof as the Commissioner of Social Security may require. An individual's statement as to pain or other symptoms shall not alone be conclusive evidence of disability as defined in this section; there must be medical signs and findings, established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques, which show the existence of a medical impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged and which, when considered with all evidence required to be furnished under this paragraph (including statements of the individual or his physician as to the intensity and persistence of such pain or other symptoms which may reasonably be accepted as consistent with the medical signs and findings), would lead to a conclusion that the individual is under a disability.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 42 U.S.C.A. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i).

         When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the denial. Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance” and “more than a mere scintilla.” Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “Stated differently, this standard is met if there is sufficient evidence ‘to justify, if the trial were to a jury, a refusal to direct a verdict.'” Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 477, 71 S.Ct. 456, 95 L.Ed. 456 (1951)).

         IV. Relevant Facts in the Record

         Plaintiff was born developmentally delayed in 1994, and began receiving child disability benefits when she was two years old. Doc. 16. The Regulations classify Plaintiff as a younger individual throughout the relevant period. (Tr. 40); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. Plaintiff has a limited education and no past relevant work. (Tr. 40). Plaintiff was determined to be disabled through June 20, 2012, shortly after she turned eighteen years-old. (Tr. 61-68). The disability determination is different for children than adults, and when she was reevaluated under the adult rules, the state agency determined that she was not disabled. (Tr. 61-68). An ALJ ...

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