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Maria R. Centeno v. Commissioner of Social Security

December 3, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anne E. Thompson, U.S.D.J.





This matter has come before the Court to review pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff Maria R. Centeno's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff seeks a reversal or, in the alternative, remand of the Commissioner's decision denying her request for Social Security benefits [10]. Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (―Commissioner‖) seeks affirmance of the Commissioner's decision [11]. The Court has decided the appeal upon the submissions of both parties and without oral argument, pursuant to L. Civ. R. 9.1(b). For the reasons detailed below, we will remand to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Plaintiff, currently forty-nine years old, worked as a paralegal at a law firm for sixteen years until June 15, 2001, when she left work for medical reasons. (R. 37.)*fn1 She was ultimately terminated later that year. (R. 38.) This appeal concerns Plaintiff's second application for disability benefits.*fn2 Plaintiff applied for benefits on April 18, 2006, claiming disability status as of September 21, 2003, although this onset date was later amended to September 30, 2003. (R. 11.)

The precise reason for Plaintiff's claimed disability is not an isolated incident but rather a confluence of factors. Plaintiff initially began having difficulty at work as a result of her inability to handle emotionally the factual content of the personal injury and product liability cases to which she was assigned. (R. 40--41.) These mental difficulties were compounded by physical pain in Plaintiff's legs, neck, arms, and back, which was diagnosed as fibromyalgia. (R. 41--42.) Plaintiff did not file for unemployment benefits, but began receiving a monthly disability income through a private insurer. (Id.) Plaintiff received psychiatric treatment for several years, (R. 45--48). As of 2008, she was continuing to attend physical therapy, (R. 48), although Plaintiff's obesity has rendered this treatment more difficult, (R. 54). Plaintiff also claims symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from her experiences growing up living in housing projects where many of her peers died of ―gunshots or AIDS‖-Plaintiff's sister being in the latter category. (R. 61.) In short, Plaintiff claims that her pain and depression prevent her from being able to focus or sit comfortably for long enough to work in her former paralegal position or any other job.

On September 4, 2008, Administrative Law Judge Paula Garrety held an administrative hearing at which she reviewed the medical evidence and heard Plaintiff's testimony regarding the above facts, as well as the testimony of vocational expert Dr. Carolyn Rutherford. (R. 32--77.) On November 21, 2008, ALJ Garrety issued a decision concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify for disability from her onset date through her date last insured, and that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 21.) This decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's appeal on June 25, 2009. (R. 2.) After receiving an extension of time to file a civil action, (R. 1), Plaintiff filed the Complaint on November 23, 2009 requesting reversal or remand of the decision. (Compl. 2--3) [1].


A.Standard of Review

This Court reviews Social Security appeals under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which empowers this Court to enter ―a judgment affirming, modifying or reversing the decision of the Commissioner . . . with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.‖ 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing the ALJ determinations, this Court applies a ―substantial evidence‖ standard of review.

42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ―substantial evidence‖ standard is defined as ―such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion,‖ and therefore requires ―more than a mere scintilla.‖ Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 400 (1971)). Where the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record, they are considered conclusive even though the Court might have decided the inquiry differently. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001).

B.Standard for Disability Benefits Determination

Disability is defined as the ―inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity*fn3 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). To show disability, a claimant must ―furnish[] such medical and other evidence of the existence thereof as the Commissioner of Social Security may require.‖ Id. § 423(d)(5)(A).

The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential evaluation process for disability claims under the Act. See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)--(v); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999). The threshold inquiry looks to (1) whether the claimant has engaged in any ―substantial gainful activity‖ since her alleged disability onset date. If not, the Commissioner considers (2) whether the claimant has any impairment or combination of impairments that is ―severe‖ enough to limit the claimant's ability to work. Id. §§ 404.1520(b)--(c), 404.1521. If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner then examines the objective medical evidence to determine (3) whether the impairment matches or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. If so, the claimant is automatically eligible for benefits; if not, the Commissioner determines (4) whether the claimant has satisfied his burden of establishing that he or she is unable to return to his past relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(b); Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security, 474 F.3d 88, 92 (3d Cir. 2007) (internal citations omitted). If the claimant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show (5) whether other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform given her medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity (―RFC‖). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g); Poulos, 474 F.3d at 92.

C.The ALJ's Findings and Final Determination

Following this five-step procedure, ALJ Garrety concluded as follows: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of September 30, 2003 through her date last insured of December 31, 2006, (R. 13); (2) Plaintiff had severe impairments including degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease of the knees, fibromyalgia, obesity, depression, anxiety and possible post-traumatic stress disorder, (R. 13); (3) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled listings 1.02, 1.04, 12.04, 12.06, and paragraph B, (R. 14); (4) Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work at her former paralegal job through the date last insured, (R. 19); and (5) Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform ―light work,‖ (R. 15), such that jobs as an ―assembler,‖ ―inspector,‖ or ―packer‖ existed ...

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