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Godschall v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 20, 2019

WILLIAM GODSCHALL, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         William Godschall seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423, et seq. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice issued a Report and Recommendation to which the Commissioner of Social Security filed objections and Godschall filed a response. Upon careful consideration of the Commissioner's objections, Godschall's response and the administrative record, the Court overrules the Commissioner's objection, adopts the R&R and directs an award of DIB as of the date of Godschall's 55th birthday.

         I

         To receive DIB, Godschall must demonstrate that he is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity” because of a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-part sequential test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). It is Godschall's burden to establish steps one through four-that he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity (step one), has a severe physical or mental impairment (steps two and three) and does not have the “residual functional capacity”[2] to return to past relevant work (step four). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iv). The burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish step five: whether Godschall can perform other jobs existing in the national economy when considering his residual functional capacity and his age, education and past work experience. See Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); see also Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 632, 634 (3d Cir. 2010).

         A

         Godschall filed his DIB application on July 20, 2012, more than seven years ago. (Administrative Record (“R.”) 334-35, 354, ECF Nos. 4-7 & 4-8.) Following a hearing, ALJ John Fitzpatrick denied his claim. (Id. at 164-81, ECF No. 4-4.) The Appeals Council granted Godschall's request for review and remanded the case. (Id. at 182-87, ECF No. 4-4.) After a hearing (id. at 37-77, ECF No. 4-2), ALJ Regina Warren determined that Godschall was not disabled at the fifth step of the sequential evaluation. (Id. at 19-36.). Specifically, she found that through the date last insured, when Gosdchall was 55 years old (id. at 29),

he had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work . . . except for some mental, nonexertional limitations. [He] was able to function in production oriented jobs with minimal social interaction. He was able to make simple, work-related decisions, and perform jobs not requiring complicated tasks. He required a low stress work environment with no pace work and no continuous interaction with the public. He was able to be around co-workers and supervisors in proximity, but he worked best on independent, unskilled work assignments, requiring minimal social contact to complete. [Godschall] was limited to having few work place changes.

(Id. at 26 (emphasis added).) The ALJ explained that because Godschall's “ability to perform all or substantially all of the requirements of [medium] work was impeded by additional limitations, ” she “asked the vocational expert whether jobs existed in the national economy for an individual with [Godschall's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity.” (Id. at 29; see also id. at 65.) At the hearing, the vocational expert testified that an individual like [Godschall]

would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations as a laundry worker . . ., of which there are 115, 000 jobs nationally, a general sorter . . ., of which there are 170, 000 jobs nationally, and a packer . . ., of which there are 25, 000 jobs nationally.

(Id. at 30.) Each of these occupations are classified as “light” exertional occupations. (See id. at 66-67 (testimony of vocational examiner citing the Dictionary of Occupation Titles).) Because Godschall “was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy” - the occupations identified by the vocational expert - the ALJ concluded that a finding of “not disabled” was “appropriate.” (Id. at 30.) The Appeals Council denied Godschall's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.[3] (Id. at 1-6.)

         B

         Godschall filed this lawsuit on April 18, 2018. See (Compl., ECF No. 1). In his Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of his Request for Review, he argued, in relevant part, that the ALJ did not meet her burden to deny an award of benefits at step 5 of the sequential evaluation (Pl.'s Br. at 17, ECF No. 8.) Godschall noted that the three occupations identified by the vocational expert are all “light” work, not “medium” and asserted that “Vocational Rule 202.04 requires a finding that [he] has been disabled since attaining the age of 55 if he is limited to light work.”[4] (Id. at 17-18.) Godschall argued that the ALJ cannot overcome the Grid Rule[5] “based on vocational expert testimony” and thus “[t]he ALJ could not meet the agency's burden at step five with respect to the period since Plaintiff attained age 50[ ][6] based on vocational expert testimony identifying light occupations.” (Id. at 17.)

         The Commissioner responded that Godschall's “argument misses the mark” because “substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that Godschall could perform medium work . . . .” (Def.'s Resp. at 18, ECF No. 9.)

         Godschall replied that the Commissioner's argument did not address the ALJ's ultimate assessment of his residual functional capacity. (Pl.'s Reply at 9, ECF No. 11.) The ALJ concluded that “he had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work . . . except for some mental, nonexertional limitations.” (R. at 26, ECF No. 4-2 (emphasis added).) Factoring in these limitations, the vocational examiner then testified that there were light work jobs that Godschall could perform and that exist in significant numbers. (Id. at 30.) Godschall argued that “the agency's burden is to show ...


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