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Mench v. Astrue

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

September 3, 2013

Nancy E. Mench
Commissioner Michael J. Astrue.

W. James Nicoll, Jenkins, Block & Associates, P.C., Baltimore, MD,

Alex S. Gordon, Esq., Office of the United States Attorney, Baltimore, MD.

SUSAN K. GAUVEY, Magistrate Judge.

Dear Counsel:

Plaintiff, Nancy E. Mench, by her attorneys, W. James Nicoll and Jenkins, Block & Associates, filed this action seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner"), who denied her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under sections 405(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act ("the Act") respectively. This case has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge by consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 301. No hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6.

Currently pending before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment and plaintiff's request for remand in the alternative. The Court has concluded that under the applicable law, the ALJ did not err in finding Ms. Mench ineligible for disability. For the reasons that follow, the Court hereby DENIES plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS defendant's motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff has applied for SSI and DIB benefits on three occasions. The first application, on May 19, 2005, alleged that she became unable to work on May 12, 2005 because of limitations resulting from coronary artery disease, obesity, degenerative disc disease, chronic venous insufficiency, and facet syndrome in the cervical spine. (R. 48-50). The application was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration. (R. 48). After a hearing on September 26, 2006, ALJ Edward J. Banas issued an opinion on January 6, 2007 denying benefits for Ms. Mench. (R. 48-55). ALJ Banas found that Ms. Mench's coronary artery disease was stable, but her other limitations restricted her to sedentary work with some additional limitations; however, based on the testimony of the vocational expert ("VE"), he determined that there were jobs available in the national economy that she could perform, therefore precluding an award of benefits. (R. 50-55). Because this decision was not appealed, it is final and binding.

On May 24, 2007, Ms. Mench filed a second application for SSI and DIB benefits, alleging the same onset date of May 12, 2005. Because the aforementioned decision of ALJ Banas is final and binding, Ms. Mench's second application was limited to the period beginning on the day after the issuance of ALJ Banas' decision, January 7, 2007.[1] These claims were denied initially on August 24, 2007 and upon reconsideration on July 3, 2008. (R. 20). On August 27, 2008, Ms. Mench requested a hearing, and the hearing was held on October 27, 2009 in front of ALJ Melvin D. Benitz. Id . ALJ Benitz found that based on the VE's testimony, there were jobs available in the national economy that accommodated Ms. Mench's limitations and denied her appeal. (R. 70-76).

Ms. Mench appealed ALJ Benitz's decision to the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council remanded to ALJ Benitz for review on May 11, 2010.[2] (R. 20). During the appeal process for her application dated May 24, 2007, Ms. Mench filed a third application for SSI and DIB benefits on March 23, 2010. (R. 84). The Appeals Council considered the third application to be a duplicate of the second application and ordered ALJ Benitz to merge the applications and consider the March 23, 2010 application in conjunction with his revised ruling on the May 24, 2007 application. (R. 84). On November 9, 2010, another hearing was held in front of ALJ Benitz, and his second opinion incorporating the mandates from the Appeals Council, dated December 17, 2010, again found Ms. Mench able to hold a job available in the national economy and denied her application for SSI and DIB benefits. (R. 20, 38-39).

The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of ALJ Benitz' December 17, 2010 opinion on March 26, 2012, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the agency. (R. 8-10). Plaintiff now seeks review of that decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Factual History

The Court has reviewed the Commissioner's Statement of Facts and, finding that it accurately represents the record in all material respects, hereby adopts it in full. The Commissioner's Statement of Facts did not include Ms. Mench's mental health records, stating the mental health concerns were not relevant to this Court's evaluation of ALJ Benitz's decision. The Court mostly agrees but finds the following information relevant to this appeal.

Ms. Mench was treated by doctors and counselors at the Kent County Behavioral Health Center approximately monthly beginning in February 2007. (R. 554). Dr. Peimer, however, prescribed Ms. Mench's mental health medications. (R. 508). The record contains a string of records from these visits. See, e.g., (R. 499, 508, 625, 644, 667, 671, 683, 685). On the following dates, Ms. Mench's condition was listed as some variation of "stable, " "stable on meds, " "meds helping, " or "improve[ing]": December 2, 2007; March 24, 2008; April 14, 2008; July 7, 2009; November 10, 2009; December 14, 2009; August 16, 2010; October 4, 2010. Id . This is not an exhaustive list of Ms. Mench's mental health history, but provides sufficient background information for the purposes of this opinion.

III. ALJ Findings

In reviewing a claimant's eligibility for SSI, an ALJ must consider all of the evidence in the record and follow the sequential five-step analysis set forth in the regulations to determine whether the claimant is disabled as defined by the Act. 20 C.F.R § 416.920(a).[3] If the agency can make a disability determination at any point in the sequential analysis, it does not review the claim further. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). After proceeding through each ...

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