United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
MAUREEN P. KELLY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Dennis Martin Eror, Jr. ("Eror"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f]. The matter is presently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (ECF Nos. 11, 13). For the reasons that follow, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 13) be denied, and that Eror's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 11) be denied to the extent that it requests an award of benefits but granted to the extent that it seeks vacation of the Commissioner's administrative decision, and a remand for further proceedings. It is also recommended that the Commissioner's decision be vacated, and that the case be remanded for further consideration of Eror's applications for DIB and SSI benefits.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Eror protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on August 25, 2009, alleging that he had become "disabled" on May 1, 2007. (R. at 78, 85, 105). The Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination (the "Bureau") denied the applications on February 19, 2010. (R. at 57, 61). Eror responded on March 11, 2010, by requesting an administrative hearing. (R. at 68-69). On June 24, 2011, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael F. Colligan. (R. at 26). Eror, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (R. at 30-42). Samuel E. Edelmann ("Edelmann"), an impartial vocational expert, provided testimony about the expectations of employers existing in the national economy. (R. at 43-45). In a decision dated August 16, 2011, the ALJ determined that Eror was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 9-22).
On August 29, 2011, Eror sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. (R. at 7, 145-148). The Appeals Council denied the request for review on January 9, 2014, thereby making the ALJ's decision the "final decision" of the Commissioner in this case. (R. at 1). Eror commenced this action on February 19, 2013, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (ECF Nos. 1, 2). Eror and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on June 20, 2013, and July 29, 2013, respectively. (ECF Nos. 11, 13). Those motions are the subject of this Report and Recommendation, which is being filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court's review is plenary with respect to all questions of law. Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). With respect to factual issues, judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Adorno v. Shalala , 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler , 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-1191 (3d Cir. 1986). Congress has clearly expressed its intention that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 565, 108 S.Ct. 2541 (1988) (internal quotation marks omitted). As long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it cannot be set aside even if this Court "would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones v. Barnhart , 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).
In order to establish a disability under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate a "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him [or her] from engaging in any substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Stunkard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services , 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); Kangas v. Bowen , 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is considered to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity "only if his [or her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).
To support his or her ultimate findings, an administrative law judge must do more than simply state factual conclusions. He or she must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare , 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). The administrative law judge must consider all medical evidence contained in the record and provide adequate explanations for disregarding or rejecting evidence. Weir on Behalf of Weir v. Heckler , 734 F.2d 955, 961 (3d Cir. 1984); Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981).
The Social Security Administration ("SSA"), acting pursuant to its legislatively-delegated rulemaking authority, has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court recently summarized this process by stating as follows:
If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further. At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment, " defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c).
Barnhart v. Thomas , 540 U.S. 20, 24-25, 124 S.Ct. 376 (2003) (footnotes omitted). Factual findings pertaining to all steps of the sequential evaluation process are subject to judicial review under the "substantial evidence" standard. McCrea v. Commissioner of Social Security , 370 F.3d 357, 360-361 (3d Cir. 2004).
In an action in which review of an administrative determination is sought, the agency's decision cannot be affirmed on a ground other than that actually relied upon by the agency in making its decision. In Securities & Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corp. , 332 U.S. ...