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Linke v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 25, 2018



          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.


         Plaintiff Priscilla Linke ("Linke") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.SC. § 405(g) for review of the ALJ's decision denying her claim for supplemental social security ("SSI"). She alleges a disability beginning on June 1, 1989. (R. 10)[2] Following a hearing before an ALJ, during which time both Linke and a vocational expert ("VE") testified, the ALJ denied her claim. Linke appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF docket nos. [10] and [12].

         Legal Analysis

         1. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is "not merely a quantitative exercise." Gilliland v. Heckler 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). "A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)." Id., The Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See, 5 U.S.C. §706.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the claimant must demonstrate that he 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 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986). The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404, subpt. P, appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id. A district court, after reviewing the entire record, may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3dCir. 1984).

         2. The ALJ's Analysis

         At step one, the ALJ found that Linke had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 22, 2013, the application date. (R. 12) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Linke has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia and joint pain, migraines, GERD, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. (R. 12) The ALJ referenced some other conditions such as asthma and allergies, but found that they did not constitute "severe impairments." (R. 12-14)

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Linke does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, Appendix 1. The ALJ considered Listings 12.04 and 12.06 (mental impairments), but determined that Linke did not satisfy the criteria. (R. 14-15)

         Prior to engaging in step four, the ALJ assessed Linke's residual functional capacity ("RFC").[3] The ALJ found Linke able to perform a range of light work, with some restrictions. (R. 16-21)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Linke has no past relevant work. (R. 24) Finally, at step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Linke's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (R. 21) For example, the ALJ determined that Linke is capable of performing the requirements associated with representative occupations such as a garment sorter, a linen grader, or a retail marker. (R. 22)

         3. Fibromyalgia

         Linke limits her appeal to the issue of fibromyalgia.[4] She contends that the ALJ erred in failing to assess her fibromyalgia in accordance with Social Security Ruling 12- 2p ("SSR 12-2p"). Social Security Ruling 12-2p was designed to provide "guidance on how we develop evidence to establish that a person has a medically determinable impairment (MDI) of fibromyalgia (FM), and how we evaluate FM disability claims and continuing disability reviews under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act." SSR 12-2p, 2012 WL 3104869 (Jul. 25, 2012). The regulation provides certain criteria for a finding of a medically determinable impairment of fibromyalgia[5] then states that, once an impairment is established, the ALJ engages in the five step sequential analysis. That is, "we consider the severity of the impairment, whether the impairment medically equals the ...

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