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Heller v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 19, 2017

SUZANNE HELLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHIL L, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge

         This is an action brought under Section 1383(c) of the Social Security Act and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter, “the Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Suzanne Heller's claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1). For the reasons expressed herein, and upon detailed consideration of the arguments raised by the parties in their respective briefs, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be vacated and the matter remanded for further review.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On January 9, 2013, Heller filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning August 8, 2012. (Doc. 13, at 2). Her claim was denied on April 11, 2013, and she requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Doc. 13, at 2). A hearing was conducted by ALJ Scott M. Staller on August 19, 2014. (Doc. 13, at 2). In a written decision dated August 28, 2014, the ALJ determined Heller was not disabled and therefore not entitled to benefits. (Doc. 13, at 2). Heller appealed this decision to the Appeals Council on October 13, 2014, who denied her appeal on January 15, 2016. (Doc. 13, at 2).

         On February 29, 2016, Heller filed the instant complaint. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner responded on June 9, 2016, providing the requisite transcripts. (Doc. 8; Doc. 9). The parties then each filed their respective briefs. (Doc. 13; Doc. 17; Doc. 18). In her brief, Heller argues the ALJ's erred in five respects: that he should have found Heller's impairments met or equaled Listings 12.04 and 12.06; substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's evaluation of opinion evidence; the ALJ's RFC is not supported by substantial evidence; the ALJ improperly evaluated Heller's GAF scores; and that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's credibility assessment. (Doc. 13, at 1-2). The Commissioner disagreed with each of Heller's arguments. (Doc. 17). The Commissioner and Heller consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned on November 16, 2016. (Doc. 24).

         All transcripts received and the positions fully briefed, the matter is ripe for review.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         In his decision dated August 28, 2014, the ALJ determined Heller “is not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.” (Doc. 9-2, at 53). The ALJ reached this conclusion after proceeding through the five-step sequential analysis required by the Social Security Act. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ determined that Heller meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017. (Doc. 9-2, at 44).

         At step one of the five-step analysis, an ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If a claimant is engaging in SGA, the Regulations deem them not disabled, regardless of age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). SGA is defined as work activity-requiring significant physical or mental activity-resulting in pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. In making this determination, the ALJ must consider only the earnings of the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574. The ALJ determined Heller “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 8, 2012, the alleged onset date.” (Doc. 9-2, at 44). The ALJ acknowledged Heller performed part-time work at home as a bookkeeper for a non-profit organization roughly 5-10 hours per week, however determined that it did not rise to the level of SGA. (Doc. 9-2, at 44). Thus, the ALJ's analysis proceeded to step two.

         At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that are severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(ii). If the ALJ determines that a claimant does not have an “impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [their] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, [the ALJ] will find that [the claimant] does not have a severe impairment and [is], therefore not disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 1520(c). If a claimant establishes a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the analysis continues to the third step.

         The ALJ found Heller had seven severe impairments: status post two transient ischemic attacks; osteoarthritis; adhesive capsulitis of the left shoulder status post rotator cuff repair; hyperparathyroidism status post hemi parathyroidectomy; chronic kidney disease - stage 3; major depressive disorder; and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (Doc. 9-2, at 44). The ALJ also noted non-severe impairments of hypertension and Barrett's esophagus, but determined these impairments had not caused “more than a minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to work since her alleged onset date.” (Doc. 9-2, at 44).

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether the severe impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the medical equivalent of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d); 404.1525; 404.1526). If the ALJ determines that the claimant's impairments meet these listings, then the claimant is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). The ALJ determined that none of Heller's impairments considered individually or in combination met or equaled a Listing. (Doc. 9-2, at 45-47). Specifically, the ALJ considered Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint); 1.04 (disorders of the spine); 6.02; 11.04 (vascular insult to the brain);12.04 (depressive, bipolar and related disorders); 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders); 14.09 (inflammatory arthritis). (Doc. 9-2, at 45-47).

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), crafted upon consideration of the medical evidence provided. The ALJ determined that Heller:

Has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1567(b) except she has the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant can understand, remember and carry out simple instructions, and she can make judgments on simple work-related decisions. She requires a job with only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting. She can have no interaction with the public, and only occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors. She is able to maintain concentration and attention for two-hour segments over an ...

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