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Compte v. Astrue

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 16, 2014

MELISSA COMPTE, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

WILLIAM W. CALDWELL, District Judge.

I. Introduction

We are considering Plaintiff's appeal from the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on March 16, 2010. (Doc. 8 at 1). A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May 5, 2011. (Doc. 7-2 at 10). On August 16, 2011, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application. (Doc. 7-2). Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council on September 12, 2011, but the Appeals Council denied the request for review. This appeal followed. For the reasons explained below, we will affirm the ALJ's decision and deny Plaintiff's appeal.

II. Relevant Medical History

Beginning in April 2009, Plaintiff began to experience severe dizziness and very bad headaches. (Doc. 7-2 at 13). Initially, Plaintiff was treated by a primary care physician, Dr. Darshan Patel. (Doc. 7-3 at 12). In June 2009, Plaintiff was referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, Dr. Hussain Malik, who prescribed a number of medications and a nasal spray. (Id.). In July 2009, Plaintiff saw Dr. Raj Katara, who noted that she displayed a wide-based gait, and complained of persistent dizziness. (Id.). Diagnostic testing showed no abnormalities. Plaintiff attempted physical therapy but ceased going after her symptoms worsened. By the end of 2009, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Malik that her dizziness was 60% better. (Id.). Plaintiff was prescribed a cane by her chiropractor that she routinely uses to walk.

At her hearing, Plaintiff testified that she is unable to walk without assistance and stays in bed all day. (Doc. 7-2 at 13). She has a young son but he is mostly cared for by her husband and her mother. (Id.). She testified that she does not bathe herself, cook for herself, drive herself, go shopping, or go to church. ( Id. at 14).

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

When considering a social security appeal, we have plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security , 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin. , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater , 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995). However, our review of the Commissioner's findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether those findings are supported by "substantial evidence." Id .; Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). Factual findings which are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) ("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981)("Findings of fact by the Secretary must be accepted as conclusive by a reviewing court if supported by substantial evidence."); Keefe v. Shalala , 71 F.3d 1060, 1062 (2d Cir. 1995); Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001); Martin v. Sullivan , 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 & 1529 n.11 (11th Cir. 1990).

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 (1988)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B. , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Brown , 845 F.2d at 1213. 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 v. Federal Maritime Commission , 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, " Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706, 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). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the Commissioner ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason , 994 F.2d at 1064. The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson , 529 F.3d at 203; Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706-707. Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).

B. Five-Step Evaluation Process

To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an "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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 432(d)(1)(A). Furthermore,

[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. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), "work which exists ...

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