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Joanne Vona v. Commissioner of Social Security

April 11, 2011

JOANNE VONA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cooper, District Judge

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Joanne Vona ("Vona") sought review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. (Dkt. entry no. 1, Compl.) The Commissioner initially filed an Answer (dkt. entry no. 4, Ans.), but now moves to remand for further proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to allow for the consultation of a vocational expert ("VE") at step five of the sequential analysis. (Dkt. entry no. 7, Def. Br.) Vona joins the Commissioner's motion, but further requests that the Court also order the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") to take testimony from a "psychiatric/ psychological medical expert." (Dkt. entry no. 8, Pl. Ltr.) The Court determines the motion without oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand the matter for reconsideration.

BACKGROUND

Vona filed for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of July 13, 2007. (Compl. at 1-2.) Vona's alleged disability is "severe psychiatric and psychological conditions." (Id. at 2.) The ALJ denied Vona's claim, finding that she retained the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") to perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy and thus was not disabled. (Dkt. entry no. 5, T.R. at 23-24.) Vona's request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council was denied. (Compl. at 1.) Vona then brought this action against the Commissioner, seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision denying benefits. (Id.) The Commissioner answered, arguing the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. (Ans. at 2.) But after the filing of a letter by Vona pursuant to Local Civil Rule 9.1, the Commissioner moved to remand for further administrative proceedings, claiming the ALJ failed to correctly apply the law and applicable regulations. (Def. Br. at 1.)

DISCUSSION

I. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has promulgated a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an individual is entitled to DIB. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of the alleged disability. Id. at §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, the ALJ moves to step two to determine if the claimant's alleged impairments qualify as "severe." Id. at §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the ALJ inquires in step three as to whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of any impairment found in the Listing of Impairments. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Part A. If so, the claimant is automatically eligible to receive benefits (and the analysis ends); if not, the ALJ moves on to step four. Id. at §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). In the fourth step, the ALJ decides whether, despite any severe impairment, the claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f). The claimant bears the burden of proof at each of these first four steps. At step five, the burden shifts to the SSA to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); see Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 91-92 (3d Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).

The ALJ found here, and Vona does not dispute, that Vona (1) is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a history of substance addiction disorder and depression, and these impairments meet sections 12.04 and 12.09 of in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R part 404, subpart P (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.152(d), 416.920(d)); and, (3) is unable to perform any past relevant work. (T.R. at 16-23.) The ALJ further found Vona's substance abuse was "in partial remission" and that a finding of disability based on substance abuse would be inappropriate, but that even if Vona "stopped the substance use" she would "continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments" that would not meet the listings. (Id. at 20-21.) But the ALJ finally found that if Vona stopped substance use, she would have the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with a non-exertional limitation of "unskilled work." (Id.) The question is whether the ALJ properly determined at step five that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Vona is capable of performing.

II. ALJ's Use of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at Step Five

The Commissioner claims that the ALJ lacked substantial support for applying "the Grids" at step five. (Def. Br. at 3.) Specifically, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ erred in failing to follow any of the SSA's approved methods for evaluating non-exertional limitations, in that the ALJ failed to "secure a [VE], cite to the [Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT")], or provide notice to the plaintiff of his finding that her mental limitations did not effect the job base." (Id. at 4.) See also SSAR 01-1(3), 2001 WL 65745 (Jan. 25, 2001). Vona agrees and also requests remand. (Pl. Ltr. at 1-2.) The Court concurs.

The ALJ's reliance on the Grids in the presence of Vona's non-exertional impairment constitutes reversible error under Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259 (3d Cir. 2000). In Sykes, the Third Circuit emphasized:

[I]n the absence of a rulemaking establishing the fact of an undiminished occupational base, the Commissioner cannot determine that a claimant's non-exertional impairments do not significantly erode his occupational base under the medical-vocational guidelines without either taking additional vocational evidence establishing as much or providing notice to the claimant of his intention to take ...


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