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Crone v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania, Williamsport

September 16, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for a report and recommendation. Michelle K. Crone (“Plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's decision finding of not disabled. As set forth below, the undersigned recommends to DENY Plaintiff's appeal and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision in this case.


         To receive disability or supplemental security benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”), a claimant bears the burden to demonstrate an “inability to engage in 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Plaintiff must demonstrate the physical or mental impairment “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The process requires an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to decide whether an applicant (1) is engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) suffers from a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment;” (3) suffers from “an impairment(s) that meets or equals one” listed in the regulation's appendix; (4) has a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) allowing for performance of “past relevant work;” and (5) can “make an adjustment to other work.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 2005).

         If at any of the steps a determination exists that a plaintiff is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 551. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Id.

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations”). Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); see also Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance” and “more than a mere scintilla.” Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         The Court may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the fact-finder. Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552. The Court will not set the Commissioner's decision aside if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the Court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir.1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).


         A. Procedural History

         In April 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to Title II of the Act, alleging disability since April 24, 2012, due to degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, spinal stenosis, obesity, diabetes, gastritis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hypertension, hyperlipidemia, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), cardiovascular disorder, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 155-61) (Pl. Br. at 2-3) (Doc. 10). In March 2017, an ALJ held a hearing where Plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a Vocational Expert (“VE”) testified. (Tr. 34-63). On July 7, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 19-30). In June 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (Tr. 1-6) making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1481; 422.210(a). This action followed.


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the following errors: (1) The ALJ failed to properly assess the medical evidence; (2) The ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiff's fibromyalgia; (3) The ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiff's severe impairments; (4) The ALJ failed to properly analyze the vocational evidence; and (5) The ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiff's credibility regarding her complaints of chronic pain. (Pl. Br. at 5-6).

         A. RFC and Impairments

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiff's fifteen impairments, particularly fibromyalgia and obesity. (Pl. Br. at 7-10). In the decision, the ALJ reviewed the record to evaluate Plaintiff's impairments prior to formulating the RFC, as discussed below. (Tr. 21, 24-27). From the record, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform:

light work … except she can sit for up to four hours total in an eight-hour workday, and stand and/or walk for up to four hours total in an eight-hour workday. She must alternate between sitting and standing position at will. She can frequently push, pull, handle, finger, and feel with the bilateral upper extremities. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance and stoop, but can never kneel, crouch, or crawl. She cannot be exposed to unprotected heights, but can occasionally be exposed to moving mechanical parts. She cannot be exposed to temperature extremes or vibration.

(Tr. 24). In deciding the RFC, the ALJ gave significant weight to the July 15, 2015 opinion of disability determination examiner Louis, B. Bonita, M.D. (Tr. 28) (citing Tr. 85-90). Dr. Bonita opined Plaintiff could perform light work, with occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, but no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. (Tr. 85-90).

         1. Fibromyalgia

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiff's fibromyalgia impairment in compliance with Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 12-2p. (Pl. Br. at 7-9). SSR 12-2p states as follows:

VI. How do we consider Fibromyalgia (“FM”) in the sequential evaluation process? As with any adult claim for disability benefits, we use a 5-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an adult with an MDI of FM is disabled.
A. At step 1, we consider the person's work activity. If a person with FM is doing substantial gainful activity, we find that he or she is not disabled.
B. At step 2, we consider whether the person has a “severe” MDI(s). If we find that the person has an MDI that could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms the person alleges, we will consider those symptom(s) in deciding whether the person's impairment(s) is severe. If the person's pain or other symptoms cause a limitation or restriction that has more than a minimal effect on the ability to perform basic work activities, we will find that the person has a severe impairment(s).
C. At step 3, we consider whether the person's impairment(s) meets or medically equals the criteria of any of the listings in the Listing of Impairments in appendix 1, subpart P of 20 CFR part 404 (appendix 1). FM cannot meet a listing in appendix 1 because FM is not a listed impairment. At step 3, therefore, we determine whether FM medically equals a listing (for example, listing 14.09D in the listing for inflammatory arthritis), or whether it medically equals a listing in combination with at least one other medically determinable impairment.
D. RFC assessment: In our regulations and SSR 96-8p, we explain that we assess a person's RFC when the person's impairment(s) does not meet or equal a listed impairment. We base our RFC assessment on all relevant evidence in the case record. We consider the effects of all of the person's medically determinable impairments, including impairments that are “not severe.” For a person with FM, we will consider a longitudinal record whenever possible because the symptoms of FM can wax and wane so that a person may have “bad days and good days.”
E. At steps 4 and 5, we use our RFC assessment to determine whether the person is capable of doing any past relevant work (step 4) or any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy (step 5). If the person is able to do any past relevant work, we find that he or she is not disabled. If the person is not able to do any past relevant work or does not have such work experience, we determine whether he or she can do any other work. The usual vocational considerations apply.
1. Widespread pain and other symptoms associated with FM, such as fatigue, may result in exertional limitations that prevent a person from doing the full range of unskilled work in one or more of the exertional categories in appendix 2 of subpart P of part 404 (appendix 2). People with FM may also have nonexertional physical or mental limitations because of their ...

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