United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
Joni L. Brown, Plaintiff
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
Richard P. Conaboy, United States District Judge.
consider here the appeal of Plaintiff Joni Louise Brown from
an adverse decision of the Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) or (“Agency”) on her
application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits
(“SSI”). Plaintiff's claim, initially filed
on April 23, 2014, was denied at the administrative level on
June 25, 2014. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and received
such a hearing on April 13, 2016. The ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision on August 22, 2016 which was affirmed by
the Appeals Council on September 7, 2017. The Appeals
Council's affirmance constitutes a final decision of the
Agency and vests this Court with jurisdiction pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g).
Testimony before the ALJ.
Plaintiff testified at a hearing before ALJ Paula Garrety on
April 13, 2016. Also present were Charles Rosamilia, Jr., her
attorney, and Patricia Chilleri, a vocational expert
(“VE”). Plaintiff's testimony may be
summarized as follows.
was forty-five years of age on the date of her hearing. She
has three children all of whom have reached adulthood. She
lives with one of her daughters who she described as
“learning disabled”. The daughter receives SSI
benefits and receives these checks in her own right.
Previously, Plaintiff had been her daughter's
representative payee. (R. 117-118).
does not drive and has never had a driver's license. When
she needs to leave the house she depends on her mother for
transportation. Plaintiff stated that she does not leave the
house often because being in public makes her anxious. She
last worked in 1997. She did try to go back to work briefly
in 2002 but could not sustain that employment. Since 2002,
her physical problems have gradually gotten worse despite
several surgeries. (R. 118-119).
completed the tenth grade and subsequently earned a GED. She
is five feet three inches tall and weighs approximately two
hundred and fifteen pounds. She formerly weighed about 140
pounds and believes that her difficulty moving around has
contributed to her substantial weight gain. Before her back
symptomology she did “all sorts of stuff” such as
photography, nature hikes, dancing, and shopping at flea
markets. She no longer does these things because she has
difficulty staying on her legs for more than thirty to
forty-five minutes before she becomes shaky and her legs
begin to swell. She stated that she can sit for forty-five
minutes to an hour and then must change position due to
swelling in her legs. She believes the swelling is related to
her lower back problems. She was not able to estimate how
long she would be capable of sitting and standing in an eight
hour work day because she is on medications that make her
tired and sometimes cause her blood pressure to spike. Some
days are worse than others. She does not believe that she
could work even as much as five hours in an eight hour
workday. (R. 119-120).
difficulty walking from her front door to the sidewalk and
back -- a distance of less than half a block. She must sit
down to rest afterward. She does not experience much of a
problem manipulating things with her hands but sometimes
experiences hand numbness. She stated that she had been
assaulted by a boyfriend in 1997 and that the damage incurred
ultimately made two back surgeries, one cervical and one
lumbar, necessary. Before the surgeries Plaintiff was
experiencing extreme pain in her lower back, hips, legs,
neck, and down her arms into her hands. Her neck surgery
“made things a little better”. However she still
experiences pain in her left hand and some numbness in her
right hand. Also, she began to experience headaches after her
neck surgery. These headaches are severe enough that she does
not do much around the house and depends on her daughter and
her boyfriend to do such things as take out the trash, do the
laundry, make the beds, and shop for groceries. (R. 120-122).
back surgery in 2013 actually made her low back and leg
symptomology worse and further impaired her ability to
function. She does not get much sleep. She naps downstairs in
the afternoon and early evening and then her daughter helps
her get up to her third floor bedroom. She sleeps
sporadically and generally wakes up before 5:00 a.m. and, as
a result, she is tired all day. This fatigue and her social
anxiety are such that she rarely leaves the house. Her back
pain also limits her and she finds that even minimal physical
activity exacerbates back pain that radiates down her legs.
also relates that she feels depressed and believes that her
depression stems from the assault she suffered years ago. She
had gone for a time for mental health therapy and, while in
therapy, was prescribed medication for her anxiety. She was
told by a therapist that she did not need to go back to
therapy as long as she stayed on her medication. Plaintiff
also alluded to osteoarthritis which affects her knees,
fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, and hips. When this
condition is exacerbated she goes to the hospital for an
injection to deal with the inflammation. She also uses heat
and ice to alleviate her symptoms of osteoarthritis. (R.
testifying was VE Patricia Chilleri. Ms. Chilleri testified
that she was familiar with the rules and regulations
governing disability under the Social Security Act and that
she had reviewed the exhibits that had been introduced and
also heard Plaintiff's testimony. Her vocational
testimony was entered without objection from Plaintiff's
phrased a hypothetical question to Ms. Chilleri in which she
was asked to assume a person of Plaintiff's age,
education, and work-history who was able to perform sedentary
or light work that did not involve detailed or complex
instructions and was confined to routine, competitive tasks
and no more than occasional contact with the public. Under
these assumptions, Ms. Chilleri identified sedentary
occupations (including document preparer, sorter, sampler,
tester, inspector, and bench worker) and light exertional
occupations (including hand packer and laundry worker/folder)
that would be within the hypothetical claimant's
functional capacities. (R. 128-129).
questioning by the Plaintiff's attorney, Ms. Chilleri
stated that if the claimant was unable to sit, stand, or walk
for more than two hours in an eight hour day and could lift
no more than five pounds, she would be unable to perform any
of the jobs that had been identified. When Plaintiff's
attorney asked whether marked limitations in understanding
and carrying out simple instructions coupled with agoraphobia
and panic attacks as described by Plaintiff's doctor
would preclude Plaintiff from performing any of the jobs the
VE had identified, Ms. Chilleri responded that, if the
Plaintiff was unable to maintain consistency and persistence
for at least twenty percent of an eight hour work day, she
would be unemployable. (R. 129-130).
Clinton Medical Associates.
Greenberg of Clinton Medical Associates saw Plaintiff on four
occasions between March 4, 2014 and May 20, 2014. On March 4,
2014 Dr. Greenberg's office note refers to low back pain
at ¶ 5-S1 and headaches. He recorded Plaintiff's
weight at 188 pounds and her blood pressure at 122/74. He
noted that he would follow up with Plaintiff after surgery.
March 7, 2014, Plaintiff called Dr. Greenberg with complaints
of cold symptoms and back pain. Dr. Greenberg prescribed
Hydrocodone and a cough medication. (R. 564).
April 4, 2014, Plaintiff presented with complaints of chest
tightness, anxiety, and low back pain post-status lumbar
fusion. Plaintiff's weight was recorded as 184.8 pounds
and her blood pressure was measured at 132/78. (R. 563).
April 15, 2014 and April 23, 2014 Plaintiff called Dr.
Greenberg on three occasions to discuss her dosage of Adidex
(a weight control medication), to complain of feeling odd and
experiencing back pressure, and to report that she ...