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Amy Provenzano v. Commissioner of the Social Security Administration

August 31, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle


SIMANDLE, District Judge:


This matter comes before the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying the application of Plaintiff Amy Provenzano for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. At issue in this case is whether there is substantial evidence in the record that was fully and fairly developed to support the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that Provenzano's impairments were not severe enough to qualify her as disabled under the Social Security Act. For the reasons explained below, the Court will vacate and remand because the ALJ did not properly consider the effects of Provenzano's medication on her residual functional capacity.


Plaintiff, Amy Provenzano, was born on August 19, 1970 and currently lives in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Provenzano is a high school graduate with vocational training in cosmetology. R. 43, 174. She worked in cosmetology on and off for ten or fifteen years until August 8, 2006. R. 44.

On December 24, 2006, Provenzano was injured in a motor vehicle accident, and on February 14, 2007 she slipped and fell, injuring herself. R. 20-21. On March 21, 2007, Provenzano filed concurrent claims for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income. Provenzano alleged that the onset of her disability was August 5, 2006 based on her bipolar disorder, and also cited her more recent injuries as a result of the motor vehicle accident and slip and fall incident. R. 135- 47, 164, 169.

The Commissioner of Social Security has promulgated regulations for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.*fn1 It is the claimant's burden to show that he or she is severely impaired, and either that the severe impairment meets or equals a listed impairment and lasts for the requisite duration, or that it prevents the claimant from performing the claimant's past work. Wallace v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 722 F.2d 1150, 1153 (3d Cir. 1983). If the claimant meets those burdens by a preponderance of the evidence, the Commissioner bears the burden of proving that other work is available for the claimant. Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987). Ultimately, entitlement to benefits is dependent upon finding the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.

On August 18, 2009, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ found that Provenzano met the status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2010, R. 149-156, and that Provenzano had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 5, 2006, the alleged onset date. The ALJ also found that Provenzano suffers from severe impairments, including lumbosacral sprain/strain and bipolar disorder.

However, the ALJ determined that these impairments do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed in the regulations. And, rejecting some of Provenzano's testimony about her limitations, R. 33., the ALJ found that Provenzano had the residual functional capacity to perform exertional demands of light work with limitations.*fn2 The ALJ stated that Provenzano's past relevant work as a hairstylist did not require the performance of work functions precluded by her impairments. The ALJ also found, in the alternative, that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Provenzano could perform, such as Food and Beverage Order Clerk and Addresser. Based on these findings, the ALJ determined that Provenzano was not disabled from August 5, 2006 through September 17, 2009. The Appeals Council denied Provenzano's request for review on July 17, 2010. R. 1-3.

On this appeal, Provenzano makes several arguments contesting the ALJ's findings.*fn3 Provenzano argues: (1) that her symptoms of pain should have been considered a severe impairment, and that even if not itself an impairment, her pain limits her residual functional capacity more than the ALJ found; (2) that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate and weigh certain pieces of medical evidence in determining Provenzano's residual functional capacity; and (3) that the ALJ erred in finding that Provenzano's residual functional capacity was sufficient, even as determined by the ALJ, for her to return to work as a hairdresser or to perform other jobs.


A. Standard of Review

This Court is empowered by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. See Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995). The Court must uphold the Commissioner's factual findings where they are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence means more than "a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id.

To facilitate this Court's review, the ALJ must set out a specific factual basis for each finding. Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d 309 (3d Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420 U.S. 931 (1975). Additionally, the ALJ "must adequately explain in the record [the] reasons for rejecting or discrediting ...

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