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Paules v. Colvin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 9, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Defendant.


JAMES M. MUNLEY, District Judge.

Before the court for disposition is Plaintiff Elizabeth A. Paules's (hereinafter "plaintiff") appeal of the denial of Social Security benefits. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.


Plaintiff is a Caucasian woman who was forty-three years old at the time of the alleged disability onset. (Doc. 13, Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 1). Plaintiff quit high school in the tenth grade, but later obtained her general equivalency diploma. (Id. ¶ 6). Plaintiff's work history includes employment as the following: school cafeteria worker; personal care aid and certified nursing assistant. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-5). She was last employed in October of 2009 as a housekeeper at the Hershey Hotel. (Id. ¶ 3).

Plaintiff began suffering from back pain in 2003 when she was morbidly obese. She underwent gastric bypass surgery, which helped to ease the pain. (Id. ¶ 16). The pain returned in April of 2009. An x-ray and MRI revealed that plaintiff had mild degenerative disk changes with lower lumbar facet antropathy, multilevel degenerative changes and a posterior central annulus tear. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 17). She has been treated in various ways, with, for example, pain medications, injections and physical therapy.

In addition to her back problems, plaintiff also has a history of suffering from depression dating back to 1990. (Id.) Plaintiff has gone through counseling and therapy sessions to alleviate her depression. (See, e.g., id. ¶ 62, 63).

Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (hereinafter "DIB") and Supplemental Security Income (hereinafter "SSI") on November 13, 2009. She alleges that she became disabled on October 7, 2009, due to her mood disorders and back pain. (Doc. 8, Admin. R. (hereinafter "R.") at 69, 71, 188). The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's applications initially, and plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (hereinafter "ALJ"). (Id. at 69, 71, 104-05).

The ALJ held her hearing on April 11, 2011, and issued a decision on April 22, 2011 that denied plaintiff's application for benefits, based upon a finding that she is not disabled in that she can perform other work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy including unskilled light and sedentary jobs identified by the Vocational Expert (hereinafter "VE"). (Id. at 17, 54-55). Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which appeal was denied on February 23, 2012. (Id. at 1-3). The appeal to this court followed.


The court has federal question jurisdiction over this Social Security Administration appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) ("The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title."); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has his principal place of business....").

Standard of Review

In reviewing a Social Security appeal, this court must determine whether "substantial evidence" supports the ALJ's decision. See, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012); Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n , 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has explained that "substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla;' it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'" Hagans , 694 F.3d at 292 (quoting Plummer , 186 F.3d at 427).

The court should not reverse the Commissioner's findings merely because evidence may exist to support the opposite conclusion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart , 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for those of the fact-finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir.2001) (indicating that when the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, courts are bound by those findings, even if they would have decided the factual inquiry differently). In an adequately developed factual record, substantial evidence may be "something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo , 383 U.S. at 620.

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, " Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981) and "must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B. , 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). "When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason." Plummer , 186 F.3d at 429 (quoting Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993). The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 529 F.3d ...

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