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Whitford v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 15, 2014



WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.

Plaintiff Irma Whitford brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying Whitford's application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


A. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of the alleged disability. Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, the Commissioner moves to step two to determine if the claimant's alleged impairment, or combination of impairments, is "severe." Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner 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 Commissioner moves on to step four. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). In the fourth step, the Commissioner decides whether, despite any severe impairment, the claimant retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform past relevant work. Id. §§ 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 Social Security Administration 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).

B. Standard of Review

For purposes of this appeal, the court's review of legal issues is plenary. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The factual findings of the administrative law judge ("ALJ") are reviewed "only to determine whether the administrative record contains substantial evidence supporting the findings." Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). Substantial evidence is "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. When substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's factual findings, this Court must abide by the ALJ's determinations. See id. ( citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).


Since emigrating from Colombia in 1990, the Plaintiff worked primarily as an order picker. Administrative Transcript ("Tr.") at 27. Plaintiff allegedly experienced a psychotic break in 2005. Tr. at 213. She began seeing her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Claudio Dicovsky, in July of 2005. Tr. at 311. Dr. Dicovsky diagnosed the Plaintiff with bipolar disorder shortly thereafter. Tr. at 213. Plaintiff continued to work despite her diagnosis until her last employer relocated in November of 2008, and she stopped work due to the relocation. Tr. at 28.

On February 11, 2011, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging a disability beginning December 10, 2010, based on her bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. Tr. at 153-59. Plaintiff's application was denied on April 13, 2011, and again upon reconsideration. Tr. at 98-102. The Plaintiff's request for a hearing was granted, and a hearing was convened on May 17, 2012. Tr. at 111-112. ALJ Donna A. Krappa denied Plaintiff's claim, finding that her alleged disability existed at the same level of severity during the time she was working. Tr. at 28-29.

A. Summary of the Record

The record includes medical records and evaluations from a treating psychiatrist and a non-examining consultant physician. It also includes Plaintiff's testimony about her condition and the Plaintiff's husband's observations and testimony about Plaintiff's condition. Finally, it includes testimony from a vocational expert.

Plaintiff's sole treating psychiatrist, Dr. Claudio Dicovsky, produced treatment notes dating back to September of 2007. Dr. Dicovsky's treatment notes indicate that the Plaintiff had "ups and downs" both before and after her last job. Tr. at 367, 373. The notes go on to state that the Plaintiff was "stable" and "feels better" as recently as March 8, 2011 and April 16, 2012. Tr. at 365, 367. On November 21, 2011, the notes mention that Plaintiff experienced 4 days of depression, and Dr. Dicovsky stated that she is unable to work. Tr. at 366. Dr. Dicovsky completed a medical source statement in May of 2012. In it he noted that the Plaintiff had mood swings and auditory hallucinations and that her prognosis was fair. Tr. at 311. He also indicated that Plaintiff would be unable to meet competitive standards in many mental abilities needed to perform work. Tr. at 313-14. Furthermore, the statement indicated that he anticipates the Plaintiff to be absent from work more than four days per month because of her condition. Tr. at 315.

The Plaintiff's claim was examined by a State Disability Determination Services non-examining consultant, Dr. Alexander Golin. Dr. Golin reported on April 4, 2011 that Plaintiff has moderate limitation in activities of daily living, social interactions and concentration, persistence and pace, but no episodes of decompensation. Tr. at 300. He reported that she could groom herself, prepare simple meals, do light housekeeping, drive on a limited basis, shop in stores, manage money, and chat with social contacts. Tr. at 306. He also reported that she was able to understand, remember, concentrate, persist, and adapt adequately to perform simple work tasks. Tr. at 306.

The record contains Plaintiff's testimony about her activities and working conditions at her last job. The Plaintiff testified that she does not drive because driving causes panic attacks. Tr. at 40. She stated that when she has a bad day she cannot get out of bed until midday. Tr. at 47. The Plaintiff testified that she can shower and prepare simple meals but that her husband takes care of laundry, grocery shopping, and cooking. Tr. at 47-48. She says that her last job allowed her to lay down in her car during her scheduled breaks, but she was not allowed to take unscheduled breaks. Tr. at 45, 51. She flew to Colombia approximately one month before her administrative hearing to visit her sick mother and stayed for 10 days. Tr. at 48. She claims to have panic attacks daily, which are not precipitated by any stimulus. Tr. at 50.

The record contains testimony about the Plaintiff's activities by the Plaintiff's husband, John Whitford. Mr. Whitford's testimony is supplemented by a "mood diary" which Mr. Whitford used to track her medications, doctor visits, and mood. Tr. at 317-363. He testified that the Plaintiff socialized to the extent that she talked on the phone often with family in Colombia and her sister, and she received occasional visits from her brother-in-law. Tr. at 60. He noted that the Plaintiff has travelled to see her mother approximately five times since 2004 but that flying causes her anxiety. Tr. at 62. Under questioning from Plaintiff's ...

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