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Todd v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Delaware

May 6, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


         Presently before me are Plaintiff Adrienne Todd's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 18) and Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 21). The Parties have fully briefed the issues. (D.I. 19, 22, 23). For the reasons set out below, I will remand Ms. Todd's case for further consideration consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         This action arises from the denial of Ms. Todd's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434.[1] Ms. Todd filed her benefits application on April 19, 2013. (Tr. at 15). She alleged disability beginning August 18, 2012 due to anxiety, status-post left rotator cuff repair, status-post spinal fusion, and status-post torn meniscus. (Tr. at 15, 232). Her application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels. (Tr. at 143-54). Ms. Todd requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 156-57).

         The ALJ held an administrative hearing on July 12, 2016. (Tr. at 41-81). Ms. Todd and a vocational expert testified. (Id.). The ALJ issued a decision denying Ms. Todd's request for Disability Insurance Benefits on January 11, 2017. (Tr. at 12-31). The ALJ found that, through the date Ms. Todd was last insured, she had many severe impairments:

knee disorder, carpal tunnel syndrome, status post left shoulder arthroscopy, status post cervical fusion, chronic headaches, diffuse chronic pain, back disorder, phlebitis and thrombophlebitis, status post revision of gastrojejunal anastomosis, status post gastric bypass, history of lupus, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, neuropathy, left ulnar neuropathy, obesity, anxiety, major depressive disorder, and panic disorder.

(Tr. at 17). Considering these impairments, the ALJ made a residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding that stipulated: sedentary work, unskilled work, no exposure to more than moderate noise intensity, no more than occasional postural activity, no kneeling, no crawling, no climbing, no overhead reaching, no more than occasional use of ramps and stairs, no work at exposed heights, no more than occasional work around moving machinery, no pushing or pulling with lower extremities, no more than frequent fingering, and no more than occasional exposure to atmospheric irritants. (Tr. at 21). Based on the vocational expert's testimony that, despite these limitations, work existed in the national economy for Ms. Todd, the ALJ found Ms. Todd was not disabled. (Tr. at 30).

         Ms. Todd requested review by the Appeals Council and was denied. (Tr. at 1-6). She filed this action on March 16, 2018. (D.I. 1).

         II. Legal Standard

         The Commissioner must follow a five-step sequential analysis when determining if an individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Commissioner must determine whether the applicant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a "severe" medical impairment; (3) suffers from an impairment that is listed in the regulation's appendix; (4) can still perform past relevant work; and (5) can perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. McCrea v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 370 F.3d 357, 360 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. §404.1520).

         A reviewing court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 564-65 (1988). In reviewing whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings, the court may not "re-weigh the evidence or impose [its] own factual determinations." Chandler v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011). The reviewing court must defer to the ALJ and affirm the Commissioner's decision, even if it would have decided the factual inquiry differently, so long as substantial evidence supports the decision. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999).

         The reviewing court must also review the ALJ's decision to determine whether the correct legal standards were applied. Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). The court's review of legal issues is plenary. Id.

         III. Discussion

         Ms. Todd only challenges the ALJ's step five analysis. Specifically, she challenges whether the ALJ considered her ability to sustain work and whether the ALJ's RFC finding adequately accounted for all of her impairments.

         Ms. Todd argues that the ALJ failed to consider whether she is able to sustain work prior to finding that she was not disabled. Disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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). As part of the disability analysis, an ALJ is required to consider whether a claimant is able "to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis." SSR 96-8P at *2 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). A "regular and continuing basis" is "8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule." Id. Thus, in addition to physical and mental limitations, the ALJ must consider the frequency of a claimant's impairment-related hospitalizations and medical appointments when determining whether the claimant is disabled. See Kangas v. Bowen,823 F.2d 775, 778 (3d Cir. 1987) (holding that the ALJ should have considered the claimant's six hospitalizations in a sixteen-month period when formulating an RFC finding); Ashe v. Berryhill, ...

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