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Grancea v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 13, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.


          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.


         Plaintiff Doina Liliana Grancea (“Grancea”) filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits in February of 2015. (R. 12)[1] She alleged disability based upon both physical and mental impairments. Her application was denied. She was represented by counsel at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ) during which both she and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (R. 12) Ultimately, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied Grancea's request for review. Grancea then filed this appeal. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. 8 and 14. For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is vacated and the case is remanded for further consideration.


         1. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)(7). Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). 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); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420.

         Importantly, a district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196-7, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 WL 2036692, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         As stated above, the ALJ denied Grancea's claim for benefits. More specifically, at step one, the ALJ found that Grancea has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 15) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Grancea suffers from the following severe impairments: migraine headaches, depressive disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, and fibromyalgia. (R. 15) At step three, the ALJ determined that Grancea does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R.15-17) Between steps three and four, the ALJ decided that Grancea has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with certain restrictions. (R. 17-23) At step four, the ALJ found that Grancea is able to perform her past relevant work as a janitor as it was actually performed. (R. 23) At the fifth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that, considering Grancea's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (R. 23-4)

         III. Discussion

         Grancea presents several issues on appeal, yet I only need to address her concerns with the ALJ's assessment of her migraines. Specifically, I limit my focus to her contention that the ALJ erred in failing to conclude that her migraines equaled a listed impairment at the third step of the sequential analysis.

         Both parties agree that there is no Listing specifically for migraines and that the most analogous Listing is 11.02 (Epilepsy). See ECF Docket No. 9, p. 9 and Docket No. 15, p. 12. Listing 11.02 can be met “where the claimant experiences generalized tonic-clonic seizures at least once per month for three consecutive months, or where the claimant experiences dyscognitive seizures at least once per week for three consecutive months, despite adherence to prescribed treatment.” Snow v. Berryhill, Civ. No. 18-434, 2019 WL 1873551, at * 4 (N.D. Ind. April 26, 2019), citing, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Supbpt. P, App. 1 (Listing 11.02(A) and (B)). Listing 11.02 can also be met “where the claimant experiences less frequent but more severe seizures that result in marked limitations in the claimant's ability to function.” Id., at * 4, n. 2, citing, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (Listing 11.02(C) and (D)).

         Here, Grancea urges that she can demonstrate medical equivalence under this alternate option - Listing 11.02(D). The Listing provides, in relevant part:

D. Dyscognitive seizures …, occurring at least once every 2 weeks for at least 3 consecutive months… despite adherence to prescribed treatment…; and a ...

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