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Kirby v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

September 29, 2017

FAITHE L. KIRBY, Plaintiff,



         THIS matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff Faithe L. Kirby (the “Plaintiff”) of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for social security benefits for the period between October 24, 2010 and January 21, 2015. (Pl.'s Br. 1). For the reasons set forth below, the Court vacates the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and remands for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. Disability Defined

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further states that:

[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has promulgated a five-step, sequential analysis for evaluating a claimant's disability, as outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). In Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422 (3d Cir. 1999) the Third Circuit described the Commissioner's inquiry at each step of this analysis, as follows:

In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial activity, the disability claim will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).
In step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails to show that his impairments are “severe, ” he is ineligible for disability benefits.
In step three, the Commissioner compares the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five.
Step four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to his past relevant work. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume his former occupation, the evaluation moves to the final step.
At this [fifth] stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate the claimant is capable of performing other available work in order to deny a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The ALJ must show there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can perform, consistent with his medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. The ALJ must analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether he is capable of performing work and is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. The ALJ will often seek the assistance of a vocational expert at this fifth step. See Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 1984).

Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428.

         II. Background

         The Court recites only the facts that are necessary to its determination on appeal, which is narrow.[1]

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for social security benefits on March 27, 2012, alleging that as of April 1, 2010, she was disabled due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, shoulder joint degeneration, arthritis, acid reflux disease, and asthma. (Administrative Record “A.R.” 216-19, 251). Plaintiff's claim was denied on August 28, 2012. (Id. at 141-45). On August 29, 2012, Plaintiff amended the alleged onset date of her disability to March 15, 2008. (Id. at 229). Reconsideration was denied on January 12, 2013. (Id. at 159-64). On March 13, 2013, Plaintiff requested a hearing, (A.R. 165-69), and on June 5, 2014, a hearing was held before the Honorable Marguerite Toland (the “ALJ”). (Id. at 41-88). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. Marian Morocco, a vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff again amended the alleged onset date to October 24, 2010. (Id. at 20, 44). On January 21, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 20-34). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 22, 2016, (A.R. 1- 6), at which time the ALJ's decision became the final determination of the Commissioner.

         B. Brief Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on June 6, 1972, and was 40 years old on the alleged disability onset date. (Id. at 98). Her husband of twelve years, with whom Plaintiff had a volatile and abusive relationship, died on March 24, 2010 after battling drug and alcohol addiction. (Id. at 56-60). At some point during their relationship, Plaintiff also began abusing drugs, and she suffered with addiction issues for a time. (Id. at 56). Plaintiff has not worked since the date of her husband's death.

         Plaintiff suffers from a number of impairments, both physical and mental, as is exemplified by her extensive record of emergency room trips and visits to her primary care physician, Dr. Gross. (Id. at 373-76, 307, 313-14, 378-84, 400, 504-05, 525-75). During the period between 2010 and 2013, Plaintiff sought treatment for, among other things: multiple left shoulder injuries, multiple apparent suicide attempts, generalized anxiety disorder, asthma, migraines, PTSD, depression, insomnia, and panic attacks. (Id.) She testified that beyond her mental inflictions, she suffers from neck, back, shoulder, and hip pain. (Id. at 66). She takes medication to help alleviate that pain. (A.R. 79).

         According to her Adult Function Report, (Id. at 262-69), Plaintiff is now limited in her ability to “lift, function around others, dress, and bathe.” (Id. at 263). She cannot sleep because “pain and insomnia keep [her] awake.” (Id.) She can, however, still cook a full dinner every day, do some household chores, and shop for groceries. (Id. at 264-65). Plaintiff has not driven since her husband's death, and she can no longer ride horses, which was a hobby of hers prior to the alleged disability onset date. (Id. at 265-66). She also cannot lift more than twenty pounds or walk for more than 15 minutes without a ten minute break. (Id. at 267).

         C. Testimony of ...

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