United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge.
instant case we are called upon to review a decision by a
Social Security Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
that denied disability benefits to the plaintiff, Ginger
Patton. At the time of her disability application, Ms. Patton
was in her mid-40s, and claimed that she was wholly disabled
due to lumbar disc disease and accompanying numbness and loss
of sensation in her right leg and foot. Ms. Patton presented
no medical opinion evidence supporting her claim of total and
permanent disability, and there was countervailing opinion
and clinical evidence which supported the opinion of the ALJ
that Ms. Patton retained the residual functional capacity to
perform a range of light work. In particular, this evidence
revealed that Ms. Patton's condition had improved
significantly following lumbar surgery conducted in April of
2014, to a degree where substantial evidence indicated that
she could now move and walk without pain or assistance.
the evidentiary shortcomings in her presentation before the
ALJ, Ms. Patton has appealed this adverse disability
determination arguing: (1) that the ALJ erred in failing to
find that she was per se disabled at Step 3 of the
5-step sequential process that governs Social Security
disability claims; and (2) asserting that the ALJ's
determination that she could perform a limited range of light
work was factually unsupported in the administrative record.
Given the deferential standard of review that applies to
Social Security Appeals, which calls upon us to simply
determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
findings, we conclude that the ALJ's residual functional
capacity determination in this case, and the decision that
Patton was not disabled which flowed from that assessment of
the medical evidence, are supported by substantial evidence.
We also conclude that ample evidence supported the ALJ's
Step 3 determination that Ms. Patton's medical condition
was not per se disabling. Therefore, for the reasons
set forth below, we recommend that the district court affirm
the decision of the Commissioner in this case.
Statement of Facts and of the Case
Ginger Patton's Medical History
Patton was 41 years old in August of 2011 when she began to
experience severe lower back pain along with numbness and a
loss of sensation in her right leg following an accident. On
January 28, 2014, Patton protectively applied for Social
Security Insurance benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Act,
42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. (Tr. 106-14.) In her
disability application, Patton alleged that her disability
beginning August 11, 2011, due to spinal stenosis (Tr. 46),
and asserted that her degenerative lumbar spine condition
prevented her from performing any job available in the
claim came before the ALJ on a medical record which was
mixed, equivocal and sparse in terms of corroborating details
supporting this disability claim. Thus, an EMG study
conducted on Patton in February of 2014 shortly before Patton
underwent spinal surgery revealed no evidence of nerve root
impingement or peripheral neuropathy. (Tr. 503.) Moreover,
the medical record presented to the ALJ in this case
reflected that Patton's medical condition improved
significantly following lumbar surgery in April of 2014. In
fact, Patton herself acknowledged this significant
improvement to her physician stating that “as soon as
she stepped out of the hospital [following this April 2014
surgery]: ‘I lit up right away!'” (Tr. 383.)
This post-operative medical evidence revealed that by June
2014, following Patton's recovery period from her April
2014 back surgery, she was doing “extremely
well.” (Tr. 382, 388-89.) Her spinal nerve root
symptoms had resolved (Tr. 382); she walked properly (Tr.
382); her gait, stance, and station were all normal; and she
could walk on her heels and toes without difficulty. (Tr.
382.) In fact, her treating physician announced that he was
“delighted with her response to surgery” and
opined that Patton could possibly regain her driving
privileges, which she lost due to having a numb foot. (Tr.
382.) By September of 2014, Patton's pain was reportedly
“well controlled” with her medication regimen.
(Tr. 317, 320).
these fairly benign medical records, on April 28, 2014,
shortly after Patton underwent her back surgery, a state
agency physician, Dr. Kurt Haas, opined that Patton was not
disabled but could perform sedentary work. (Tr. 46-53.)
Notably, there appear to be no countervailing medical
opinions suggesting that Patton suffered from a permanent
disabling medical condition as a result of her lumbar
condition. Instead, the physician who performed Patton's
back surgery pronounced himself “delighted with her
response to surgery” and stated that she was doing
“extremely well.” (Tr. 382, 388-89.)
Agency Administrative Proceedings
against this medical and factual backdrop marked by equivocal
and sparse medical evidence that the ALJ conducted a hearing
into Patton's disability application on August 6, 2015.
(Tr. 25-42.) Patton and a vocational expert both testified at
this hearing. (Id.) In the course of this hearing,
the ALJ received testimony from the vocational expert
identifying an array of jobs at both the sedentary and light
exertional levels that Patton might be able to perform.
September 11, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying
Patton's application for Social Security benefits. (Tr.
10-24.) In this decision, the ALJ first found that Patton had
not engaged in gainful activity since January 28, 2014, the
date of her application. (Tr. 15.) At Step 2 of the five-step
sequential analysis process that applies to Social Security
disability claims, the ALJ concluded that Patton had the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and
neuropathy. (Tr. 15.) At Steps 3 and 4 of this sequential
analysis, the ALJ concluded that none of Patton's
impairments met a listing which would define her as per
se disabled, (Tr. 15), but determined that Patton could
not return to her past relevant work. (Tr. 18.)
then concluded that Patton retained the residual functional
capacity to perform a range of light work. (Tr. 16-18.) In
reaching this conclusion, the ALJ engaged in a careful
analysis of the existing medical reports, which indicated
that Patton's condition had improved ...