United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION
A. SITARSKI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Dawn Dennis, (“Plaintiff”) filed this action to
review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration (“Commissioner” or
“Defendant”), denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles
II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§
401-434, 1381-1385 (“the Act”). This matter is
before me for disposition, upon consent of the
parties. For the reasons that follow,
Plaintiff's request for review will be
GRANTED, and the matter remanded for
proceedings consistent with this Memorandum and Opinion.
protectively filed for DIB on December 21, 2012, and SSI on
January 14, 2013. (R. 92-93, 623-28). She alleged disability
as of April 15, 2012, due in relevant part to degenerative
disc disease, leg weakness, and bi-polar disorder. (R. 21,
51, 62, 78, 92, 111, 623, 634). The Social Security
Administration denied her claim for benefits at the initial
level of review. (R. 78-86, 629-33). Following the denial,
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”), which occurred on October 10,
2014. (R. 639-76). Plaintiff, represented by an attorney,
appeared and testified. (R. 646-61). Plaintiff's
granddaughter and an impartial vocational expert
(“VE”) also testified at hearing. (R. 661-73). On
April 21, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits
under the Act. (R. 21-32). The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review, (R. 10-16), making the
ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff commenced this action on December 21, 2016, and
subsequently filed a Brief and Statement of Issues in Support
of Request for Review. (ECF Nos. 1 and 13). Defendant filed a
response. (ECF No. 18).
eligible for Social Security benefits under the Act, a
claimant must demonstrate that she cannot engage in
substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least twelve
months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c (a)(3)(A). A five-step
sequential analysis is used to evaluate a disability claim:
First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If [s]he
is not, then the Commissioner considers in the second step
whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”
that significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to
perform basic work activities. If the claimant suffers a
severe impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based on the
medical evidence, the impairment meets the criteria of the
impairment listed in the “listing of impairments,
” . . . which result in a presumption of disability, or
whether the claimant retains the capacity to work. If the
impairment does not meet the criteria for a listed
impairment, then the Commissioner assesses in the fourth step
whether, despite the severe impairment, the claimant has the
residual functional capacity to perform [her] past work. If
the claimant cannot perform [her] past work, then the final
step is to determine whether there is other work in the
national economy that the claimant can perform.
Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262-63 (3d Cir. 2000);
see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
The disability claimant bears the burden of establishing
steps one through four. If the claimant is determined to be
unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to
the Commissioner at step five to establish that, given the
claimant's age, education, work experience, and mental
and physical limitations, she is able to perform substantial
gainful activities in jobs existing in the national economy.
Poulos v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 92
(3d Cir. 2007).
review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited. A
district court is bound by the factual findings of the
Commissioner if they are supported by substantial evidence
and decided according to correct legal standards.
Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir.
1999). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere
scintilla, ” and “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Burnett
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 118 (3d Cir.
2000) (citations omitted). Even if the record could support a
contrary conclusion, the decision of the ALJ will not be
overruled as long as there is substantial evidence to support
it. Simmonds v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 54, 58 (3d Cir.
1986). The court has plenary review of legal issues.
Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429,
431 (3d Cir. 1999).
Court has reviewed the administrative record in its entirety,
and summarizes here the evidence relevant to the instant
request for review.
was fifty-two years old on her alleged disability onset date.
(R. 51). Plaintiff completed ninth grade. (R. 649). She
previously worked as a cashier, an envelope stuffer, and a
laundry sorter. (R. 112, 118-21). At the time of the
administrative hearing, Plaintiff lived with her fifteen year
old granddaughter and five year old grandson. (R. 647-48).
record reflects a history of Plaintiff experiencing low back
pain with radicular symptoms and weakness in her
legs. (R. 27). An August 28, 2009, MRI of
Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed “degenerative disc
disease and facet arthropathy superimposed on a moderately
congenitally narrow spinal canal, resulting in severe central
canal stenosis at ¶ 3-L4 and moderate central canal
stenosis at ¶ 4-L5.” (R. 251-52). A subsequent MRI
of her lumbar spine on May 26, 2012, showed “mild
worsening of a diffuse disc bulge at ¶ 5-S1, ”
“mild to moderate congenital spinal canal narrowing,
” and “moderate to severe and moderate central
canal stenosis at levels L3-L4 and L4-L5,
respectively.” (R. 156-57).
2009 and 2014, Plaintiff treated at Physical Therapy
Physicians, P.C. with Dr. James F. Bonner, M.D., and
physicians' assistant Joan Formiglia, PA-C.(R. 217-52, 466,
575-620). Plaintiff complained of pain in her lower back
associated with spinal stenosis and degenerative changes in
her lumbar spine. (R. 219-39). On physical examination,
Plaintiff displayed an antalgic gait, difficulty with postural
changes, positive straight leg raises, and palpable pain in her
low back. (R. 219-30). Notes reflected that Plaintiff
“ambulates with a straight cane.” (R. 220,
223-25, 229-31). She received monthly outpatient evaluations,
and management of her pain medication. Although medication
prescribed on a monthly basis made Plaintiff's pain
“more tolerable, ” (R. 219), epidural injections
were recommended to alleviate Plaintiff's pain. (R. 219,
220, 223, 224-30, 233, 234). On November 11, 2013, Dr. Bonner
noted that Plaintiff's condition precludes “any
type of employment due to her chronic pain syndrome.”
September 14, 2014, Dr. Bonner completed a Medical Source
Statement related to Plaintiff's physical ability to
perform work. (R. 193-94). Dr. Bonner opined that Plaintiff
was able to: (1) sit for 2-4 hours and stand/walk for 1 hour
in an 8-hour workday with the option to sit/stand every 15
minutes; (2) frequently lift/carry less than 10 pounds and
occasionally lift/carry 10 pounds; (3) rarely push and/or
pull with her lower extremity and occasionally push and/or
pull with her upper extremity; (4) rarely climb
ramps/ladder/robe/scaffold, and balance; (5) occasionally
climb stairs, and bend/stoop; and (6) never kneel or crouch.
(Id.). According to Dr. Bonner, Plaintiff required
10 minute walking breaks every 15 minutes, and 15 minute
sitting breaks every 5 minutes in an 8-hour workday. (R.
194). Dr. Bonner also indicated that Plaintiff was medically
required to use a cane for ambulation. (R. 193). Dr. Bonner
based his opinion on, inter alia, his clinical
observations of Plaintiff's antalgic gait, difficulty
walking, positive straight leg raise testing, and guarding,
as well as Plaintiff's need for daily pain medication.
(R. 194). In a clinical note dated October 13, 2014, Dr.
Bonner reiterated that Plaintiff is “unable to perform
any gainful employment” due to “severe back pain
requiring opioid medication.” (R. 575).
also treated with internal medicine specialist, Dr.
Christopher Hannum, between 2011 and 2014. (R. 201-10).
Although difficult to read, Dr. Hannum's notes reflected
treatment for a variety of ailments. (R. 201-04). On August
6, 2013, Dr. Hannum noted Plaintiff's lower back problems
secondary to “disc disease.” (R. 202). On January
25, 2014, Dr. Hannum completed a form for the Department of
Public Welfare by checking a box that indicated Plaintiff was
“permanently disabled.” (R. 463).
January 29, 2013, Plaintiff presented to Crozer Community
Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. (R. 167-76). She
reported feeling depressed and stressed due to medical issues
and issues with her grandchildren. (R. 167, 171). Upon mental
status examination, Plaintiff appeared healthy, well-groomed
and cooperative. (R. 175). She displayed slow and monotonous
speech; depressed mood; constricted affect; organized and
goal-directed thought processes; memory, concentration, and