United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge
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.
Background and Procedural History
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).
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.
transcripts received and the positions fully briefed, the
matter is ripe for review.
The ALJ's Decision
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
§ 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 ...