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Carter v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 9, 2019

DEAN MATTHEW CARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL[1], Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is 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.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On 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 11-12).

         Carter, 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).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         In his 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 18).

         At step 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.

         At step 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).

         At step 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 21).

         Between 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).

         Having 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).

         At step 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).

         As a result of this analysis, the ALJ determined that Carter was not disabled and denied his applications for benefits. (Doc. 8-2, at 26).

         III. Standard of Review

         In 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). ...


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