United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge.
an action brought under Section 1383(c) of the Social
Security Act and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking
judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security (hereinafter, “the Commissioner”)
denying Plaintiff Dean Matthew Carter's claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title
II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1). For the
reasons expressed herein, and upon detailed consideration of
the arguments raised by the parties in their respective
briefs, it is hereby ordered that the Commissioner's
decision be VACATED and REMANDED.
Background and Procedural History
March 11, 2015, Plaintiff Dean Matthew Carter
(“Carter”) protectively filed an application for
Title II benefits claiming a disability which rendered him
unable to work beginning on September 16, 2014. (Doc.
8-5, at 8). Carter's claims were initially denied by
the Social Security Administration on July 8, 2015. (Doc.
8-4, at 6-10). Thereafter, Carter filed a request for a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) on July 28, 2015. (Doc. 8-4, at
who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at an
administrative hearing before ALJ Howard Kauffman on March
13, 2017. (Doc. 8-2, at 32-72). In a written opinion
dated August 7, 2017, the ALJ determined that Carter was not
disabled and therefore not entitled to the benefits sought.
(Doc. 8-2, at 17-26). Carter appealed the decision
of the ALJ to the Appeals Council, who, on October 2, 2018,
denied Carter's request for review. (Doc. 8-2, at
1-6). On December 5, 2018, Carter filed the instant
action, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.
(Doc. 1). The Commissioner responded on April 16,
2019, providing the requisite transcripts from the disability
proceedings. (Doc. 8). The parties then filed their
respective briefs, with Carter alleging two errors that
warranted reversal or remand. (Doc. 11); (Doc.
13); (Doc. 14).
The ALJ's Decision
October 2, 2018 decision, the ALJ determined Carter
“was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of
the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014, the last
date insured.” (Doc. 8-2, at 26). The ALJ
reached this conclusion after denying Carter's claim at
step five of the five-step sequential analysis required by
the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520. The ALJ also determined that Carter met the insured
status requirements of the Social Security Act from
Carter's alleged onset date, September 16, 2014 to the
date last insured, December 31, 2014. (Doc. 8-2, at
one, an ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging
in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If a claimant is engaging in SGA,
the Regulations deem them not disabled, regardless of age,
education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).
SGA is defined as work activity-requiring significant
physical or mental activity-resulting in pay or profit. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1572. In making this determination, the ALJ
must consider only the earnings of the claimant. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1574. Here, the ALJ determined Carter did not
“engage in work at the level of [SGA] during the period
between the alleged onset date and his date last
insured.” (Doc. 8-2, at 20). Thus, the
ALJ's analysis proceeded to step two.
two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a
medically determinable impairment that is severe or a
combination of impairments that are severe. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(ii). If the ALJ determines that a claimant does
not have an “impairment or combination of impairments
which significantly limits [their] physical or mental ability
to do basic work activities, [the ALJ] will find that [the
claimant] does not have a severe impairment and [is],
therefore not disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 1520(c). If a
claimant establishes a severe impairment or combination of
impairments, the analysis continues to the third step. Here,
the ALJ found that Carter had the following severe
impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, left hip
degenerative joint disease, bilateral tarsal tunnel syndrome,
obesity, and cervical stenosis. (Doc. 8-2, at 20).
three, the ALJ must determine whether the severe impairment
or combination of impairments meets or equals the medical
equivalent of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii);
404.1525; 404.1526; 20 C.F.R. §§
416.920(a)(4)(iii); 416.925; 416.926). If the ALJ determines
that the claimant's impairments meet these listings, then
the claimant is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(d); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). The ALJ determined
that none of Carter's impairments, considered
individually or in combination, met or equaled a Listing.
(Doc. 8-2, at 20-21). Specifically, the ALJ
considered Listings: 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint(s))
and 1.04 (disorders of the spine). (Doc. 8-2, at
steps three and four, the ALJ determines the claimant's
residual functional capacity (“RFC”), crafted
upon consideration of the medical evidence provided. Here,
the ALJ determined that Carter had the RFC to perform light
work with the following limitations: “lift and/or carry
up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; could
sit, stand or walk for a total of up to six hours each in an
eight-hour workday; could not perform pushing or pulling with
the bilateral lower extremities; and could not use ladders,
ropes or scaffolds.” (Doc. 8-2, at 21).
assessed a claimant's RFC, at step four the ALJ must
determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the
requirements of their past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). A
finding that the claimant can still perform past relevant
work requires a determination that the claimant is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Past relevant work is defined as
work the claimant has done within the past 15 years, that was
substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for
the claimant to learn how to do it. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1560(b); 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b). If the claimant
cannot perform past relevant work or has no past relevant
work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. The ALJ
determined Carter was unable to perform past relevant work
through the date last insured. (Doc. 5-2, at 23). The ALJ
noted past relevant work as a roofing supervisor, team crew
leader, and foot press operator, and the exertional
requirements of each exceeded Carter's RFC. (Doc.
8-2, at 24).
five of the sequential analysis process, an ALJ considers the
claimant's age, education, and work experience to see if
a claimant can make the adjustment to other work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
These factors are not considered when evaluating a
claimant's ability to perform past relevant work. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(3); 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b)(3).
If a claimant has the ability to make an adjustment to other
work, they will not be considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(v); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). The ALJ
made vocational determinations that Carter was fifty years
old on his date last insured, but erroneously classified that
as “a younger individual age 18-49” as defined by
the Regulations. (Doc. 8-2, at 24); 20 C.F.R. §
404.1563; 20 C.F.R. § 416.963. The ALJ then noted that
Carter “subsequently changed age category to closely
approaching advanced age.” (Doc. 8-2, at 24).
In fact, Carter was forty-nine years old on the alleged onset
date (September 16, 2014), turned fifty-years-old on October
5, 2014, and so was ‘closely approaching advanced
age' as of the date last insured, December 31, 2014.
(Doc. 8-2, at 24); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563; 20
C.F.R. § 416.963. It is unknown what effect this
apparent error had on the ALJ's final decision, therefore
the Court will consider it in performing its review. The ALJ
also noted that Carter “has at least a high school
education and is able to communicate in English” as
considered in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1564; 20 C.F.R. §
416.964. (Doc. 8-2, at 24). The ALJ determined that upon
consideration of these factors, Carter's RFC, and the
testimony of a vocational expert, “there were jobs that
existed in significant numbers in the national economy that
the claimant could have performed.” (Doc. 8-2, at
24). The ALJ specifically identified occupations of
cleaner/housekeeper; bakery worker, conveyor line; and
machine tender, laminating. (Doc. 8-2, at 25).
result of this analysis, the ALJ determined that Carter was
not disabled and denied his applications for benefits.
(Doc. 8-2, at 26).
Standard of Review
order to receive benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the
Social Security Act, a claimant must 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To satisfy this
requirement, a claimant must have a severe physical or mental
impairment that makes it impossible to do his or her previous
work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). ...