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Diggin v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 1, 2019

DANIEL PATRICK DIGGIN, Plaintiff
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LINDA K. CARACAPPA UNITED STATES CHIEF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Daniel Patrick Diggin brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying plaintiff's claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI of the Act. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. §636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 72, and Local Rule 72.1, consent to the exercise of jurisdiction by a Magistrate Judge has been established.

         Presently before this court are plaintiff's request for review and the Commissioner's response. For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's request for review is GRANTED, and remand ordered.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was born on February 19, 1992 and was twenty-three (23) years old on the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 18). Plaintiff has a high school education and past relevant work as a vendor. (Tr. 18).

         On January 22, 2016, plaintiff protectively filed applications for SSI and DIB. (Tr. 192-201). Plaintiff alleged the disability onset date to be October 1, 2015. (Tr. 192). Plaintiff's applications were denied at the state level on March 9, 2016. (Tr. 116-127). Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 130-135).

         On January 10, 2018, ALJ Suzette Knight held a hearing and heard testimony from plaintiff, and plaintiff's father, who were present with counsel. (Tr. 30-93). On February 21, 2018, ALJ Knight issued an opinion finding plaintiff not disabled under the Act from October 1, 2015 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 7-20). Plaintiff filed a request for review, and on November 5, 2018, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff appealed that decision to this court.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Upon judicial review, this court's role is to determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Pierce v. Underwood, 587 U.S. 552 (1988). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). It is relevant evidence viewed objectively as adequate to support a decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775 (3d Cir. 1987); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403 (3d Cir. 1979). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court may not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for that of the ALJ. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). If the court determines the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, then the court must accept the findings as conclusive. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390; Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). It is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve conflicts in the evidence and to determine credibility and the relative weights to be given to the evidence. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. While the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has made it clear that the ALJ must analyze all relevant evidence in the record and provide an explanation for disregarding evidence, this requirement does not mandate the ALJ “to use particular language or adhere to a particular format in conducting his analysis.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 505 (3d Cir. 2004). Rather, it is meant “to ensure that there is sufficient development of the record and explanation of findings to permit meaningful review.” Id. Moreover, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court must also ensure that the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. Coria v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 245 (3d Cir. 1984).

         To establish a disability under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some “medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any ‘substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period.” Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1) (1982). The claimant satisfies his burden by showing an inability to return to his past relevant work. Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979) (citing Baker v. Gardner, 362 F.2d 864 (3d Cir. 1966)). Once this showing is made, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant, given his age, education, and work experience, has the ability to perform specific jobs that exist in the economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Rossi, 602 F.2d at 57.

         As explained in the following agency regulation, each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a five-step process:

(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 duration requirement 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 that 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 (references to other regulations omitted).

         III. ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE'S DECISION

         Pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined plaintiff had not been under a “disability, ” as defined by the Act, from October 1, 2015 through February 21, 2018, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 19-20).

         At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2015. (Tr. 13). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff's multiple sclerosis, affective disorder, and organic mental disorder to be severe impairments. (Tr. 13). The following summarized medical records pertain to the issues at bar:

         In April 2010, plaintiff was diagnosed with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (“RRMS” or “MS”). (Tr. 531). At the time of diagnosis, plaintiff presented with spinal cord involvement and onset of symptoms that included paresthesia in the right hemi-body below T4. Id. Plaintiff also experienced ocular symptoms but had a normal OCT and eye exam. Id.

         On September 16, 2014, plaintiff was seen for a neurological consultation with Dr. Joyce Liporace, M.D., at Great Valley Neurological Associations. (Tr. 531-534). The physical exam was unremarkable. (Tr. 532-533). It was noted that plaintiff had a history of Percocet addiction and was taking the medication Suboxone. (Tr. 534). It was also noted that plaintiff has a history of anxiety disorder and that anxiety can be linked with MS. (Tr. 534).

         On September 18, 2014, plaintiff was seen for a neurological consultation with Nurse Ruth Brobst, MSN CRNP, at Great Valley Neurological Associations. (Tr. 527-530). It was noted that plaintiff had recently changed MS medications from Gilenya to Tysabri. (Tr. 527). The medication change was due to plaintiff experiencing symptoms such as photosensitivity that were attributed to Gilenya. Id. It was noted that plaintiff was tolerating Tysabri well but experiencing some fatigue. Id. The photosensitivity had also improved 50% since plaintiff stopping Gilenya. Id. It was reported that plaintiff was able to read and that his distance vision was intact. Id. Fatigue was noted to be a problem. (Tr. 527). It was noted that exercise may have some benefits for fatigue, but plaintiff reported having bad days following heavy physical activity. Id. Plaintiff reported that his heat tolerance was fair, “but admits that while he had been a lifeguard at one point he could not do that now because of intolerance to heat.” Id. It was noted ...


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