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Morel v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 3, 2017

ANA MOREL, Plaintiff,

          BRANN 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 benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-433, 1382-1383 (the “Act”) and Social Security Regulations, 20 C.F.R. §§404.1501 et seq., §§416.901 et. seq.[1] (the “Regulations”). The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) decision lacks substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to elicit vocational expert (“VE”) testimony. Instead, the ALJ relied on the medical-vocational guidelines (“Grids”). This case required VE testimony because the ALJ found that Plaintiff was limited to sedentary work and included a varied combination of non-exertional limitations, including limitations in using the hands, manipulating, reaching, and balancing, which may significantly erode the sedentary occupational base. The Court recommends remand, rather than reversal, because the VE testimony on remand may still indicate Plaintiff is not disabled. However, it is for the ALJ, not the Court, to make that finding in the first instance. The Court recommends that Plaintiff's appeal be granted, the decision of the Commissioner be vacated, and the matter be remanded for further proceedings and proper evaluation of the medical opinions.

         II. Procedural Background

         On August 23, 2012, Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB. (Tr. 170-77). On October 10, 2012, the Bureau of Disability Determination (“state agency”) denied Plaintiff's application (Tr. 53-74), and Plaintiff requested a hearing. (Tr. 115-16). On March 4, 2014, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified. (Tr. 32-50). On October 1, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 15-31). Plaintiff requested review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 14), which the Appeals Council denied on December 10, 2015, affirming the decision of the ALJ as the “final decision” of the Commissioner. (Tr. 3-7). See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         On March 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to appeal the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1). On May 17, 2016, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 6, 7). On July 5, 2016, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of the appeal (“Pl. Brief”). (Doc. 8). On August 4, 2016, Defendant filed a brief in response (“Def. Brief”). (Doc. 9). On August 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed a brief in reply (“Pl. Reply”). (Doc. 10). On November 7, 2016, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. The matter is now ripe for review.

         III. Standard of Review and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To receive benefits under the Act, a claimant must establish 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 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 ALJ uses a five-step evaluation process to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ 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. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. Before step four in this process, the ALJ must also determine Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e).

         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 the claimant can perform. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). The ultimate burden of proving disability under the Act lies with the claimant. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a).

         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)).

         IV. Analysis

         a. Grids

         The ALJ must craft an RFC before moving to steps four and five. See Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 263 (3d Cir. 2000). RFC limitations “can be either exertional or nonexertional.” Id. Exertional limitations are defined as limitations in “sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569a(b). “To determine the physical exertion requirements of work in the national economy, [the ALJ] classif[ies] jobs as sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567. Non-exertional limitations include “manipulative or postural functions” like “reaching, handling, stooping, climbing, crawling, or crouching, ” along with mental impairments and other limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569a(c).

         Plaintiff alleged disability due to neuropathy, chronic back pain, edema, inflammation of the ankles, swollen wrist, hyperlordosis, and asthma (Tr. 65). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's RFC included exertional and multiple non-exertional limitations:

[Claimant could perform] sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she cannot climb ladders, ropes or stairs, and can perform all other postural functions occasionally; she can frequently handle and finger; she must avoid ordinary workplace hazards; and she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, and toxic caustic chemicals and similar occupational irritants.

(Tr. 21). The ALJ did not obtain VE testimony, instead writing:

If the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience, a finding of "not disabled" would be directed by Medical-Vocational Rule 201.28. However, the additional limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled sedentary work. A finding of "not disabled" is therefore appropriate under the framework of this rule. The claimant's additional postural and ...

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