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Wright v. Colvin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 19, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


ROBERT B. KUGLER, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on the appeal filed by Plaintiff Tiffany L. Wright from the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying Plaintiff disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). For the reasons expressed below, the Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision that Plaintiff is not entitled to DIB and remand the matter to the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").


A. Procedural History

Plaintiff Tiffany L. Wright filed an application for DIB on January 8, 2010, alleging an onset of disability on January 1, 2010. Tr. 139. Her DIB claim is based on her diagnosis with complex regional pain syndrome ("CRPS") and fibromyalgia. Tr. 41, 180. She claims that she developed CRPS from injuries sustained in a car accident on June 30, 2007. Tr. 185, 491.

Plaintiff's claim was denied on April 21, 2010. Tr. 102-06. The initial denial indicated that her claim was denied because Plaintiff's condition did not keep her from working. It indicated that although her fibromyalgia did cause pain, it did not "limit [Plaintiff's] ability to move about and use [her] limbs." Tr. 102. Plaintiff then filed a request for reconsideration, which was denied on October 23, 2010. Tr. 107-12. The denial of reconsideration cited similar reasons as the original denial, indicating that Plaintiff had the ability to work as a secretary, which was a job she had performed in the past. Tr. 110. Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ on November 15, 2010. Tr. 113-15. Represented by counsel, Plaintiff appeared and testified before the Honorable Frederick Timm, ALJ, on February 22, 2011. Tr. 24-27. On May 11, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act at any time between her alleged disability onset date of January 1, 2010, and the date of the ALJ's decision. Id. The ALJ based his conclusion on different grounds than the original denial, finding that due to the amount of Plaintiff's wages during the first two quarters of 2010, she had engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since her alleged disability onset date. Tr. 26. Plaintiff then sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request on August 17, 2012. Tr. 1-3. Plaintiff sought district court review of the ALJ's decision by filing this complaint on October 19, 2012.

B. Plaintiff's Physical Condition and Medical History

The Court will describe Plaintiff's medical history only to the extent that it is relevant to this appeal. Plaintiff's DIB claim is based upon medical impairments related to her diagnosis with CRPS and fibromyalgia. Tr. 180. She indicates that she developed CRPS as a result of a car accident that took place on June 30, 2007. Tr. 185, 639. At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that her medical impairments cause "extreme muscle and joint pain and fatigue, it's hard for me to use my hands, lift my arms, I have neuropathy in my legs, so it's hard to walk, so I wear orthopedic shoes, it's hard to hold things, move things, sit, stand." Tr. 41. She described experiencing "shooting, burning terrible pain, " in "every joint, " and in her hands, arms, shoulders, and legs. Id. Her pain is constant, and she indicated that "even a good day is still a painful day." Id. Plaintiff reported that when she sleeps, her sheets hurt to the touch, and as a result, she sleeps for at most four hours at a time, and wakes up frequently due to the pain. Tr. 45-46. Plaintiff takes a number of prescribed medications as a result of her pain, such as Lyrica, Celebrex, Oxycodone, Xanax, and sleep medication. Tr. 43, 67-68.

Plaintiff indicates that she can no longer engage in many activities as a result of her prior car accident and resulting CRPS. Such activities include caring for her pets, engaging in recreational sports such as running or jogging, and skiing. Tr. 43-45. Regarding her personal care, Plaintiff testified that she has difficulty dressing herself and bathing, and often her husband must assist her when she dresses. Tr. 47-48.

Plaintiff also indicated that she has only limited ability to participate in household chores. Tr. 50. Her husband prepares approximately 90 percent of their meals because of her difficulty in accomplishing simple kitchen tasks. Tr. 48, 49. Plaintiff cannot do any yard work, but she sometimes sweeps the porch "just to get outside." Tr. 50. She testified that she can no longer use a standard vacuum cleaner, but she is able to lift a lightweight one. Id. For laundry, Plaintiff relies on her husband to carry clothes to and from the basement, although she can sometimes operate the washing machine and dryer. Tr. 50-51. Plaintiff also has difficulty lifting heavy bags, but she sometimes does "light grocery shopping." Tr. 51. Plaintiff also indicated that her medication leaves her in a forgetful and confused mental state at times. Tr. 55-56.

C. Plaintiff's Work History

From October 2008 to the time of the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff worked as an administrative assistant for a non-profit organization called "Children Can Shape the Future, " which she describes as an organization that gives grant money to children in Philadelphia and Camden. Tr. 57, 65. A friend of Plaintiff is the executive director of the organization. Tr. 65. Plaintiff and the executive director, who also works from his respective place of residence, were the only employees of the organization at the time of her testimony, although there is a board of directors. Id. The organization has no physical offices. Tr. 58. Plaintiff testified that the administrative assistant job was not created for her. Tr. 66. She indicated that after disclosing her medical condition, the executive director of the organization believed that it might be mutually beneficial for the two of them if Plaintiff filled the position. Tr. 66-67.

Among her duties, Plaintiff answers phone calls and e-mails, and processes grant applications for her employer. Tr. 58. She testified that "luckily my employer's very flexible with how I feel so I can take my time to answer an email and get back to somebody, so if I'm not feeling really good I know that I... can do it at a later time." Id. She works approximately thirteen hours per week, between 9:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., Monday through Friday. Tr. 63-64. When the ALJ questioned Plaintiff about whether she is required to be continuously available for all 40 hours during the week, she responded "No, you're correct... I'm not required to be on call for that amount of time... I'm just supposed to work 13 hours a week during that time period." Tr. 63. Plaintiff indicates that because it is difficult for her to sit for long periods of time, she usually works for no longer than one hour at a time. Tr. 66. She receives a biweekly net salary after taxes of $484.00. Tr. 58.

Regarding her work, Plaintiff testified that "[e]very day is different and every day is based on how I feel." Tr. 64. Plaintiff testified that some days because of the pain, she can "maybe type out an email, take a minute to come back to it and just make sure I'm saying something right, or I didn't miss spell some things, didn't miss a word." Tr. 73. She generally lets phone calls go to voicemail before she calls them back because she make notes before calling people back. Tr. 74.

Prior to working for the non-profit organization, Plaintiff worked as a licensed real estate agent from 2003 or 2004 through January 1, 2010. Tr. 75-76. She worked on commission as a real estate agent and reported her earnings as self-employment earnings. Tr. 76. Plaintiff indicated that there was "no major medical change" that caused her to stop working as a real estate agent on January 1, 2010, but that she had to leave her real estate work because it was too physically taxing for her to continue. Tr. 79. She described her real estate work as "very physical, " and indicated that it required a lot of driving, opening and locking up doors, meeting people, and walking around. Id. Plaintiff also worked in the past as a self-employed freelance audio technician, which related to the broadcasting of New Jersey Lottery drawings. Tr. 77. That job ended in approximately May 2009, when the work was no longer available because ...

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