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Vargas v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 10, 2019

HEATHER VARGAS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Slomsky, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court are the Objections of Plaintiff Heather Vargas (“Plaintiff”) to the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of United States Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice. (Doc. No. 17.) On March 15, 2018, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a Motion for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis. (Doc. No. 1.) On March 26, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Nancy A. Berryhill (“Defendant”), Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, alleging that Defendant wrongfully denied her Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Doc. No. 3.) On January 10, 2019, the Court referred the case to Magistrate Judge Rice for the R&R. (Doc. No. 16.)

         On January 30, 2019, Magistrate Judge Rice issued the R&R, recommending that Plaintiff's request for review be denied. (Doc. No. 17.) On February 13, 2019, Plaintiff timely filed Objections to the R&R. (Doc. No. 18.) On February 27, 2019, Defendant filed a Response to Plaintiff's Objections. (Doc. No. 20.)

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court has conducted a de novo review of the portions of the R&R to which Objections were made. After an independent review of the record and for the reasons that follow, the Court will overrule Plaintiff's Objections (Doc. No. 18) and adopt the R&R in its entirety.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Heather Vargas, a forty-three year old woman, was born on September 26, 1976. (Administrative Record (“R.”) at 98.) She has a high school education and past relevant work as a nursing assistant, a delivery food driver, and a personal care assistant. (R. at 34-35.) She currently lives with her husband, father, and brother. (R. at 972.)

         In October 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits, claiming she had mental impairments including manic depression and social anxiety. (R. at 47-48.) On October 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI. (R. at 15.) On October 21, 2013, Plaintiff also filed an application for DIB. (R. at 98-100.) In her applications, she claimed that, as of her amended onset date, [1] she suffered from manic depression and social anxiety. (R. at 47.) On August 15, 2014, Plaintiff's claim was denied. On October 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 59.)

         On June 8, 2016, ALJ Richard E. Guida held a hearing. (R. at 15.) Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing that she had reoccurring suicidal thoughts, often harmed herself, had trouble attending social events, had trouble sustaining meaningful work, had low motivation, and had experienced numerous panic attacks each month. (R. at 961-67.) Additionally, the Vocational Expert testified that there was work Plaintiff could do in the national economy if she was limited to simple, routine tasks involving only simple work-related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes and only occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.[2] (R. at 975-76.)

         On August 11, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and that she was not entitled to DIB or SSI. (R. at 22.) Soon thereafter, Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's findings to the Appeals Council. On January 18, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Social Security Commissioner. (R. at 6-8.)

         B. Relevant Social Security Administration Regulations

         To prove a “disability”, a claimant must demonstrate “the inability to do 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.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The claimant has the burden of proving the existence of a disability and can satisfy this burden by showing an inability to return to former work. Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979). If she does so, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that, given the claimant's age, education, and work experience, she is able to perform specific jobs that exist in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).

         When evaluating a disability, the Social Security Administration uses a five-step process, which is followed in a set order:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled.
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the durations requirements in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled.
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find you are disabled.
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled.
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         At the third step, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant's impairment is so severe that it meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (2015). In making this finding, the ALJ must consider whether the “Paragraph B” criteria are satisfied. To satisfy the Paragraph B criteria, the mental impairments must result in at least two of the following: (1) marked restriction of activities of daily living; (2) marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) marked difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace; or (4) repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. Id. A marked limitation means more than moderate but less than extreme. Id. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration, means three episodes within one year, or an average of once every four months, each lasting for at least two weeks. (R. at 17A.)

         Between the third and fourth steps, the Social Security Administration assesses a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the “most [a claimant] can do despite [her] limitations.” § 404.1545(a)(1). The Administration uses the RFC assessment to determine at the fourth step whether the claimant is able to do her “past relevant work.” § 404.1545(a)(5)(i).

         When determining RFC, the Administration considers “all the relevant evidence in the case record . . . including [a claimant's] medically determinable impairment that are not ‘severe.'” § 404.1545(a)(1-2). According to the regulations, the Administration “will consider whether [a claimant's] statements and the statements from third parties are consistent with the medical and other evidence . . . .” 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 § 12(C)(3).

         C. The ALJ's Findings

         In a decision issued on August 11, 2016, the ALJ applied the Social Security Administration's five-step evaluation and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social ...


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