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Jurasinski v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 1, 2019

CYNTHIA DIANE JURASINSKI, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HENRY S. PERKIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Cynthia Diane Jurasinski (“Plaintiff”), brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by reference, to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”), denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) provided under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Subject matter jurisdiction is based upon section 205(g) of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before this Court is Plaintiff's Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of Request for Review (ECF No. 16) filed December 25, 2019; Defendant's Response to Request for Review of Plaintiff (ECF No. 17) filed March 26, 2019; and Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Request for Review (ECF No. 18) filed April 5, 2019. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Request for Review will be DENIED and the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on March 19, 2015, alleging disability since October 1, 2014. (Record at 16, 114, 362.) Plaintiff claims disability as a result of arthritis, restless leg syndrome, tendonitis, asthma, and blindness in the right eye. (Record at 106, 114.) Plaintiff's earnings record shows that she has acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through September 30, 2016, which is referred to as the date last insured. (Record at 18, 299.) Thus, in order to be eligible for DIB benefits, Plaintiff must prove that she became disabled on or before September 30, 2016. (Record at 18, Finding No. 1.)

         The state agency initially denied Plaintiff's claims on June 23, 2015, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Record at 117-125.) A hearing was held on July 12, 2017 at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (Record at 29-71). Daniel Rappuci, a vocational expert (“VE”), also appeared and testified at the July 12, 2017 hearing. (Record at 53-55, 56-61, 65-68.)

         On September 1, 2017, after having considered evidence of Plaintiff's impairments, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision in which she found that Plaintiff, given her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”), was capable of performing past relevant work or, in the alternative, jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Record at 13-24, Finding Nos. 1-7.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Record at 24, Finding No. 7.) Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision on September 8, 2017. (Record at 242-44.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review on July 26, 2018. (Record at 1-7.) Thus, the ALJ's decision, dated February 3, 2017, became the final decision of the agency. (Record at 1.)

         Plaintiff initiated a civil action on October 1, 2018, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision that she was able to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy, and thus was not entitled to DIB. (ECF No. 2.) Plaintiff filed a request for review February 25, 2019. (ECF No. 17.) The Commissioner filed his response on March 26, 2019, and Plaintiff filed a reply brief on April 5, 2019. (ECF Nos. 17, 18.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The role of this Court on judicial review is to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's final decision. Any findings of fact made by the Commissioner must be accepted as conclusive, provided that they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence” is deemed to be such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 407 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). See also Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 924 (1993). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence, ” but may be less than a preponderance of the evidence. Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995). Therefore, the issue before this Court is whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's final decision that Plaintiff is “not disabled” and is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         Though the Court's duty is “to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached [by the ALJ] are rational, ” Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979), the Court may not undertake de novo review of an ALJ's decision, nor may it re-weigh the evidence of record. Williams, 970 F.2d at 1182 (A reviewing court is not “empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the factfinder.”); Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). However, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court must also ensure that the ALJ applied the proper legal standards in evaluating a claim of disability. Coria v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 245, 247 (3d Cir. 1984). This Court's review of legal questions presented by the Commissioner's decisions is plenary. Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999).

         To prove disability, 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). Each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a five-step process:

The sequence is essentially as follows: (1) if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment, he will be found not disabled; (2) if the claimant does not suffer from a “severe impairment, ” he will be found not disabled; (3) if a severe impairment meets or equals a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 and has lasted or is expected to last continually for at least twelve months, then the claimant will be found disabled; (4) if the severe impairment does not meet prong (3), the Commissioner considers the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to determine whether he can perform work he has done in the past despite the severe impairment - if she can, she will be found not disabled; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform his past work, the Commissioner will consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether he can perform other work which exists in the national economy. See id. § 404.1520(b)-(f).

Schaudeck, 181 F.3d at 431-32. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to establish that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs in the local and national economies, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. Poulos v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 92 (3d Cir. 2007). RFC is defined as the most an individual can still do despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1).

         III. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, born on August 16, 1958, was fifty-six years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date. (Record at 23, 106.) She completed high school but had no additional vocational training, licenses, or certificates in any field. (Record at 23, 303.) With respect to work history, Plaintiff testified that she last worked in September 2016, taking care of her mother-in-law as a home attendant. (Record at 33-35.)[1] As a full-time caregiver, Plaintiff's responsibilities involved assisting her mother-in-law with bathing, dressing, meals, medications, errands, and doctors' appointments. (Record at 33, 36-37.) Prior to her work as a caregiver, Plaintiff's relevant work history included employment as an attendant at an elementary school and as a home attendant at a nursing home. (Record at 37-39, 53-56.) Plaintiff lives with her husband and alleges disability since October 1, 2014. (Record at 34, 39.)

         During the hearing that took place on July 12, 2017, Plaintiff's counsel summarized her alleged impairments as: neck pain stemming from arthritis, a total knee replacement of the left knee, vision loss from a detached retina with some scarring in the right eye, tendinitis in the wrists, and arthritis in the right shoulder. (Record at 32-33.) Similarly, when questioned as to why believes she cannot work, Plaintiff stated that she has trouble “standing for lengthy periods of time” due to her full knee replacement and cannot “lift more than 20 pounds because [she] could lose [her] sight in [her eye].” (Record at 39.) She explained that “the retina can detach again ...


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