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Mikos v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 23, 2018

DONALD MIKOS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          CONNER, C.J.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          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 Donald Mikos' claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1). The matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to prepare a report and recommendation pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons expressed herein, and upon detailed consideration of the arguments raised by the parties in their respective briefs, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On April 30, 2013, Plaintiff Donald Mikos (“Mikos”) filed applications for Title II and Title XVI benefits, respectively. (Doc. 10-2, at 14). In these applications, Mikos claimed disability beginning April 30, 2013. (Doc. 10-2, at 14). The Social Security Administration initially denied Mikos' claims on June 19, 2013. (Doc. 10-2, at 14). Mikos filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 23, 2013. (Doc. 10-2, at 14). ALJ Leslie Perry-Dowdell held a video hearing on November 20, 2014. (Doc. 10-2, at 14).

         In a written opinion dated March 27, 2015, the ALJ determined that Mikos was not disabled and therefore not entitled to the benefits sought. (Doc. 10-2, at 14). Mikos appealed the decision of the ALJ to the Appeals Council, who, on September 8, 2016, denied Mikos' request for review. (Doc. 10-2, at 2-5). On October 12, 2016, Mikos filed the instant action. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner responded on January 19, 2017; providing the requisite transcripts from the disability proceedings. (Doc. 9; Doc. 10). The parties then filed their respective briefs (Doc. 13; Doc. 15; Doc. 16), with Mikos alleging three errors warranted reversal or remand. (Doc. 13).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         In a decision dated March 27, 2015, the ALJ determined Mikos “has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, from April 30, 2013, through the date of this decision.” (Doc. 10-2, at 15). 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.[1]The ALJ determined that Mikos met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017. (Doc. 10-2, at 14).

         At step one, 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 Mikos “has not engaged in [SGA] since April 30, 2013, the alleged onset date.” (Doc. 10-2, at 16). 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)(4)(ii). If the ALJ determines that a claimant does not have an “impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] 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 Mikos “has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, unspecified paranoid state, and panic disorder.” (Doc. 10-2, at 17). The ALJ also noted treatment records reflecting non-severe physical impairments of: a straightening of the spinal curvature and mild multilevel degenerative spondylosis with mild right neural foraminal stenosis of C3-C4; head and chest pain; atrial fibrillation and heart rhythm irregularity; back pain; hyperlipidemia; and a headache. (Doc. 10-2, at 17-18). However, the ALJ determined that the non-severe impairments were either isolated incidents, did not cause symptoms having a minimal effect on Mikos' ability to perform basic work activity, or were never addressed as contributing to his disability claims. (Doc. 10-2, at 18)

         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 Mikos' impairments, considered individually or in combination, met or equaled a Listing. (Doc. 10-2, at 18). Specifically, the ALJ considered Listings 12.04 (affective disorders); 12.06 (anxiety related disorders); and 12.08 (personality disorders). (Doc. 10-2, at 18).

         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 Mikos:

has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. However, this individual has non-exertional limitations. Specifically, this individual is limited to performing routine and repetitive tasks that are performed in an environment that is free of fast-paced production requirements. This individual should not work with the public. His work should be with things and not people. He would only take instruction or redirection from a supervisor, and no immediate response is required of the worker unless clarification is necessary.

(Doc. 10-2, at 20).

         Having assessed a claimant's RFC, at step four the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of their past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). A finding that the claimant can still perform past relevant work requires a determination that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Past relevant work is defined as work the claimant has done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for the claimant to learn how to do it. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b). If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, or has no past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.

         The ALJ determined Mikos is unable to perform past relevant work. (Doc. 10-2, at 27). The ALJ noted past relevant work “for parts and supplies, ” as a packager, and office clerk, but the limitations found in Mikos' RFC precluded a return to any of these positions. (Doc. 10-2, at 27).

         At step five of the sequential analysis process, an ALJ considers the claimant's age, education, and work experience to see if a claimant can make the adjustment to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). These factors are not considered when evaluating a claimant's ability to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(3). If a claimant has the ability to make an adjustment to other work, they will not be considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         The ALJ made vocational determinations that Mikos was 39 years old on the alleged onset date, defined as a younger individual age 18 - 49 by the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. (Doc. 10-2, at 27). The ALJ also noted that Mikos “has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English” as considered in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1564. (Doc. 10-2, at 27). The ALJ determined that upon consideration of these factors, Mikos' RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert, “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” (Doc. 10-2, at 27). The ALJ specifically identified occupations of laundry worker, sorter, and laminator. (Doc. 10-2, at 28).

         As a result of this analysis, the ALJ determined that Mikos was not disabled and denied Mikos' applications for benefits. (Doc. 10-2, at 28).

         III. Standard of Review

         In order to receive benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the Social Security Act, a 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To satisfy this requirement, a 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 numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Additionally, 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 whether a claimant is disabled as 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 a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant is able to do past relevant work, considering his or her residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his or her 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 or her from doing 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 or she 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 or her RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(f); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(f).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a claimant's application for benefits, the Court's review is limited to determining whether the findings of the final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See42 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) (internal quotations omitted). 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). In an adequately developed factual record, however, 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 the Court, therefore, is not whether Mikos is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that Mikos is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. SeeArnold 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 ...


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