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Snyder v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 10, 2017

WALTER SNYDER, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge

         This is an action brought under Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Walter Snyder's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge on consent of the parties, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 20; Doc. 21). For the reasons expressed herein, the Commissioner's decision shall be VACATED, and Mr. Snyder's request for a new hearing shall be GRANTED.

         I. Background & Procedural History

         On June 20, 2012, Mr. Snyder protectively filed applications for benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Mr. Snyder alleges that be became disabled on June 20, 2011, when he was twenty-eight years old, due to the following impairments: anxiety, depression, Bipolar II Disorder, migraines, and back problems. (Admin. Tr. 307; Doc. 9-6 p. 16). In November 2012, Mr. Snyder reported that, while his claim was pending his symptoms had gotten worse and that he suffered from additional limitations including decreased grip strength, and greater difficulty moving and walking. (Admin. Tr. 344; Doc. 9-6 p. 53).

         On October 25, 2012, Mr. Snyder's claims were denied at the initial level of administrative review. During the initial evaluation of Mr. Snyder's claims, it was determined that the available evidence established the existence of the following medically determinable severe impairments: spine disorders, migraine, obesity, affective disorders, and anxiety disorders. (Admin. Tr. 113; Doc. 9-3 p. 30). His claim was denied after an adjudicator determined that Mr. Snyder was capable of engaging in other work at a sedentary exertional level. (Admin. Tr. 120; Doc. 9-3 p. 37)(denying Mr. Snyder's Title II claim); (Admin. Tr. 133; Doc. 9-3 p. 50)(denying Mr. Snyder's Title XVI claim); see20 C.F.R. §404.1567(a)(defining sedentary work in Title II claims); 20 C.F.R. §416.967(a)(defining sedentary work in Title XVI claims). Mr. Snyder appealed this denial.

         On March 25, 2014, Mr. Snyder appeared and testified during an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Reana K. Sweeney (“ALJ”). Mr. Snyder was represented by counsel throughout the proceedings. Impartial vocational expert James H. Earhart (“VE Earhart”) also appeared and testified.

         On April 24, 2014, the ALJ denied Mr. Snyder's claims in a written decision after concluding that Mr. Snyder was capable of engaging in a limited range of light work that would not preclude him from engaging in other work. (Admin. Tr. 13-21; Doc. 9-2 pp. 14-22); see20 C.F.R. §404.1567(b)(defining light work in Title II claims); 20 C.F.R. §416.967(b)(defining light work in Title XVI claims). Mr. Snyder requested further administrative review.

         On June 4, 2015, the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied Mr. Snyder's request for review. (Admin. Tr. 1-5; Doc. 9-2 pp. 2-6). This makes the ALJ's April 2014 decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court.

         On August 2, 2015, Mr. Snyder initiated the instant matter by filing a timely complaint in federal court. (Doc. 1). In his complaint, Mr. Snyder alleges that the ALJ's decision was not made in accordance with the law and regulations, and is based on findings of fact that are not supported by substantial evidence. As relief he requests that this Court reverse the Commissioner's decision and enter an order awarding benefits, or in the alternative, remand this case to the Commissioner for a new administrative hearing.

         On January 27, 2016, the Commissioner filed her answer. (Doc. 8). The Commissioner maintains that the ALJ's decision is correct and in accordance with the law and regulations, and that the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Together with her answer, the Commissioner filed a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings in this case. (Doc. 9, et seq.).

         This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for decision. (Doc. 13; Doc. 15; Doc. 16).

         II. Standard of Review

         To receive benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the Social Security Act, the 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). To satisfy this requirement, the claimant must have a severe physical or mental impairment that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in significant number in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). In addition, to be eligible to receive benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must be insured for disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a); 20 C.F.R. §404.131.

         In evaluating the question of whether a claimant is under a disability as it is defined in the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a); 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence: (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 the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listing of Impairments”); (4) whether the claimant is able to do his past relevant work, considering his current residual functional capacity (“RFC”);[1] and, (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his current RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a); 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a). The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that prevents him from doing his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a). Once the claimant has established at step four that he cannot do past relevant work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with his RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(f); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(f).

         When reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a claimant's application for benefits, this Court's review is limited to the question of whether the findings of the final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See42 U.S.C. §405(g); 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3)(incorporating 42 U.S.C. §405(g) by reference); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200(3d Cir. 2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536(M.D.Pa. 2012). 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). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). But in an adequately developed factual record, substantial evidence may be “something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ's decision] from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). “In determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record as a whole.” Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d 623, 627 (M.D.Pa. 2003). The question before this Court, therefore, is not whether Mr. Snyder is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that he is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See Arnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205, at *1 (M.D.Pa. Mar. 11, 2014)(“[I]t has been held that an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial evidence.”)(alterations omitted); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D.Pa. 1981)(“The Secretary's determination as to the status of a claim requires the correct application of the law to the facts.”); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990)(noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d at 536 (“[T]he court has plenary review of all legal issues . . . .”).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In her April 2014 decision denying Mr. Snyder's applications for benefits, the ALJ found that Mr. Snyder last met the insured status requirement of Title II of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2012. Thus, to prevail on his Title II claim Mr. Snyder must show that he became disabled on or before June 30, 2012. This requirement, however, does not apply to Mr. Snyder's Title XVI claim, which was considered through the date of the ALJ's written decision.

         The ALJ evaluated Mr. Snyder's claims at each step of the five-step sequential evaluation process.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Snyder did not engage in substantial gainful activity between June 12, 2011, and April 24, 2014. (Admin. Tr. 15; Doc. 9-2 p. 16).

         At step two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence of record established the presence of the following medically determinable severe impairments during the relevant period: degenerative disc disease, migraines, obesity, mood disorder, and anxiety disorders.[2] Id. The ALJ found that the following impairments were medically determinable but non-severe: hypertension, and recurrent hernia. The ALJ found that Mr. Snyder's hypertension did not result in any work-related limitations, and that Mr. Snyder's hernia's had not resulted in work-related limitations for a period of twelve continuous months or more. (Admin. Tr. 15-16; Doc. 9-2 pp. 16-17).

         At step three the ALJ found that Mr. Snyder did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in the version of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 that was in effect on the date the ALJ issued her decision. (Admin. Tr. 16-17; Doc. 9-2 pp. 17-18)

         Between steps three and four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ evaluated Mr. Snyder's RFC. In doing so she considered and weighed medical opinions by the following sources: nontreating physician Amatul B. Khalid (“Dr. Khalid”); nonexamining physician Dilip S. Kar (“Dr. Kar”); nonexamining psychologist Louis Poloni (“Dr. Poloni”); and, nonexamining psychologist Arlene Rattan (“Dr. Rattan”).

         On December 15, 2011, Dr. Khalid examined Mr. Snyder. Mr. Snyder reported significant limitations due to back problems, migraine headaches, and bipolar II disorder. (Admin. Tr. 500-503; Doc. 9-8 pp. 26-30). Mr. Snyder disclosed that he had been having back problems since he was eighteen years old, but has no history of fracture, has never had surgery, has never done physical therapy, and has never seen a specialist. Id.Mr. Snyder reported that it is difficult for him to sit for long periods, and can stand for approximately fifteen minutes before he experiences pain in his legs. He reported migraines up to three times weekly that result in the following symptoms: nausea and vomiting, photophobia, and intolerance of noise. Id. Mr. Snyder also stated that he had bipolar II disorder, anxiety, and depression. Id. Mr. Snyder reported that he had been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility on two occasions for suicidal/homicidal ideations, and currently experiences the following symptoms: feelings of worthlessness, sadness, loneliness, social isolation, inability to tolerate crowds. Id. On physical examination, Dr. Khalid noted that Mr. Snyder was morbidly obese, had tenderness in his spine (cervical, lower thoracic, and upper lumbar), had a slightly decreased range of motion in his spine on forward flexion only, and had a positive straight leg raise bilaterally at sixty degrees. Id. Dr. Khalid assessed that Mr. Snyder suffered from:

Chronic back pain, since fall injury. Pain to palpation of cervical spine, lower thoracic and upper lumbar. SLR is positive at 60 degrees with pain in groin and also lower back. He would benefit from follow-up with this. He has trouble laying down on exam table. His range of motion and limitations are somewhat limited due to his body habitus.

(Admin. Tr. 502; Doc. 9-8 p. 29). In an accompanying check-box physical RFC assessment, Dr. Khalid assessed that Mr. Snyder could: occasionally lift or carry up to twenty pounds; frequently carry up to three pounds; stand and walk up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; sit up to twenty minutes in and eight-hour workday; and occasionally bend, kneel, stoop, crouch, balance, or climb. (Admin. Tr. 509-510; Doc. 9-8 pp. 36-37).

         On September 10, 2012, Dr. Khalid examined Mr. Diaz for a second time. (Admin. Tr. 513-517; Doc. 9-8 pp. 40-44). During this appointment, Mr. Snyder disclosed that suffered from back pain, migraines, knee pain, and bipolar II disorder. Id. Mr. Snyder reported that he sought medical treatment three days after his accident, had an MRI six years ago that showed bone spurs and bulging discs, and did physical therapy approximately five years ago. Id. Mr. Snyder disclosed that he got migraines once per week. Id. He reported that he suffers from knee pain, and that eight years ago an MRI revealed that he has “no cartilage left, ” but does not see a specialist. Id. With respect to his mental impairments, Mr. Snyder reported that he follows with a psychologist, and experiences the following symptoms: rapid mood swings and anger outbursts, depression, social isolation/withdrawal, and dislikes leaving his home. Id. On physical examination Dr. Khalid noted that Mr. Snyder was morbidly obese, had gained seventy-five pounds since his last examination, had tenderness in his spine (thoracic and lumbar), had crepitus in both knees, had decreased lumbar flexion and decreased knee flexion, and decreased muscle strength (4/5 power) in his upper and lower extremities. Id. Mr. Snyder had a positive straight leg raise bilaterally at thirty-five degrees. Id. Dr. Khalid assessed:

Chronic low back pain, possible DDD, s/p fall. He has trouble laying down on exam table. His range of motion and limitations are somewhat limited due to his body habitus. No recent imaging to review. his[sic] radicular symptoms point towards S2 dermatome.

(Admin. Tr. 516-; Doc. 9-8 p. 43). In a check-box physical RFC assessment, Dr. Khalid assessed that Mr. Snyder could: occasionally lift or carry up to one hundred pounds; frequently lift or carry up to ten pounds; stand or walk up to two hours per eight-hour day; sit up to one hour per eight-hour day; and, occasionally bend, kneel, stoop, crouch, balance, or climb. (Admin. Tr. 894-95; Doc. 9-11 pp. 133-134). Dr. Khalid also noted that there were certain tones that Mr. Snyder could not hear. Id.

         On October 22, 2012, Dr. Kar completed a physical RFC assessment after reviewing Mr. Snyder's medical records. (Admin. Tr. 115-117; Doc. 9-3 pp. 32-34). Dr. Kar assessed that, despite his physical impairments, Mr. Snyder could: occasionally lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) twenty pounds; frequently lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) ten pounds; stand and/or walk (with normal breaks) for a total of two hours; sit (with normal breaks) for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently reach; occasionally crawl, crouch, kneel, stoop, climb ramps, and climb stairs; never climb ramps or climb stairs; and work in environments where there would be no exposure to hazards (machinery, heights, etc.). Id. Dr. Kar reported that these findings apply to Mr. Snyder's current condition on the date of the opinion, as well as to Mr. Snyder's condition as of his date last insured for the purposes of his Title II claim. Id.

         On December 1, 2011, Dr. Poloni completed a Psychiatric Review Technique (“PRT”) assessment and evaluated Mr. Snyder's mental RFC after reviewing Mr. Snyder's medical records.[3] In his PRT assessment Dr. Poloni assessed that Mr. Snyder had medically determinable impairments that did not precisely satisfy the diagnostic criteria of the following mental disorders: affective disorders, and anxiety-related disorders. (Admin. Tr. 88-89; Doc. 9- 3 pp. 6-7). He assessed that these disorders resulted in: a mild restriction of activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and no repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. Id. Dr. Poloni assessed that Mr. Snyder had no sustained concentration and persistence limitation, but did have some history of difficulty managing conflicts effectively. (Admin. Tr. 92-93; Doc. 9-3 pp. 9-10). Dr. Poloni also reported, however, that despite his social limitation, Mr. Snyder would be able to function adequately in a social context. Id.

         On August 31, 2012, Dr. Rattan completed a PRT assessment and evaluated Mr. Snyder's mental RFC after reviewing Mr. Snyder's medical records. In her PRT assessment Dr. Rattan assessed that Mr. Snyder had medically determinable impairments that did not precisely satisfy the diagnostic criteria of the following mental disorders: affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. (Admin. Tr. 113-114; Doc. 9-3 pp. 30-31). She assessed that these disorders resulted in: a mild restriction of activities of daily living; moderate difficulties maintaining social functioning; moderate difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; and no repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. Id. Dr. Rattan reported that this assessment accurately represented Mr. Snyder's current condition, and his condition as of his date last insured for the purposes of his Title II claim. Id. In her mental RFC assessment, Dr. Rattan assessed that Mr. Snyder could do the following despite the limitations resulting from his mental disorders: make simple decisions and carry out short, simple instructions; maintain socially appropriate behavior; and perform personal care functions needed to maintain an acceptable level of personal hygiene. (Admin. Tr. 117-119; Doc. 9-3 pp. 34-36). She concluded that Mr. Snyder could meet the basic mental demands of competitive work on a sustained basis despite the limitations resulting from his mental impairments. Id.

         Based on her consideration of the above medical opinions, and of the other relevant evidence of record, the ALJ found that, during the relevant period, Mr. Snyder had the RFC to engage in light work, as defined in 20 ...


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