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Gearheart v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 21, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          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 Frances Ann Gearheart's claim 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, it is ordered that the Commissioner's decision be VACATED and this case REMANDED to conduct a new administrative hearing.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On June 2, 2011, Plaintiff Frances Ann Gearheart (“Gearheart”) protectively filed an application for Title II benefits. (Doc. 6-2, at 17). In her application, Gearheart claimed disability beginning January 1, 2010. (Doc. 6-2, at 17). The Social Security Administration initially denied Gearheart's claim on August 30, 2011. (Doc. 6-2, at 17). Gearheart filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 24, 2011. (Doc. 6-2, at 17). The hearing was held on January 22, 2013, before ALJ Sharon Zanotto. (Doc. 6-2, at 17).

         In a written opinion dated February 3, 2013, the ALJ determined that Gearheart was not disabled and therefore not entitled to the benefits sought. (Doc. 6-2, at 17). Gearheart appealed the decision of the ALJ to the Appeals Council, who remanded for reconsideration. (Doc. 6-2, at 17). The Appeals Council stated that “it was unclear why the claimant was limited to a range of light work based on the physical findings” and found further evaluation of the step five determination necessary due to misapplication of Rules 202.14 and 202.06. (Doc. 6-4, at 38-39).

         Summarized by the ALJ, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to:

obtain additional evidence concerning the claimant's physical and mental impairments in order to complete the administrative record in accordance with the regulatory standards regarding consultative examinations and existing medical evidence; if necessary, obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of the claimant's physical and mental impairments; further evaluate the claimant's mental impairments in accordance with the special technique described in 20 CFR 404.1520a, documenting application of the technique in the decision by providing specific findings and appropriate rationale for each of the functional areas described in 20 CFR 404.1520a(c); give further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations; and, if warranted, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to determine whether the claimant has acquired any skills that are transferable with very little, if any, vocational adjustment to other occupations under the guidelines in Social Security Ruling 82-41.

(Doc. 6-2, at 17).[2]

         Following a rescheduling, the ALJ conducted a rehearing on November 7, 2014. (Doc. 6-2, at 17-18). On March 24, 2015, the ALJ issued a new opinion, again denying benefits, which forms the basis of Gearheart's current action. Gearheart appealed the decision on April 9, 2015. (Doc. 6-2, at 13). The Appeals Council denied Gearheart's request for review in a notice dated August 23, 2016. (Doc. 6-2, at 2). On October 21, 2016, Gearheart filed the instant action. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner responded on January 17, 2017, providing the requisite transcripts from the disability proceedings the same day. (Doc. 5; Doc. 6). The parties then filed their respective briefs (Doc. 9; Doc. 14), with Gearheart alleging two errors warranted reversal or remand. (Doc. 9, at 24). The Plaintiff did not file a reply to the Defendant's brief and the time for doing so has expired. On November 15, 2017, the Court received consent from all parties for the undersigned to enter a final judgment. (Doc. 18).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         In a decision dated March 24, 2015, the ALJ determined Gearheart “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from January 1, 2010, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2014, the date last insured[.].” (Doc. 6-2, at 29). 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 Gearheart met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014. (Doc. 6-2, at 20).

         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 Gearheart “did not engaged in [SGA] during the period from her alleged onset date of January 1, 2010 through her date last insured of December 31, 2014[.]” (Doc. 6-2, at 20). 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. § 404.1520(c). If a claimant establishes a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the analysis continues to the third step.

         The ALJ found Gearheart has no severe impairments (Doc. 6-2, at 20). The ALJ found Gearheart has several medically determinable impairments including “Chronic Pain Syndrome secondarty to Abdominal Adhesions status-post Hysterectomy; Degenerative Joint Disease; Degenerative Disc Disease; Hypertension; Hyperlipidemia; Cellulitis; Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary ...

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