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Sollera v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

March 4, 2014

DANIEL SOLLERA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 10). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 9 and 11). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, Defendant=s Motion (Docket No. 10) is denied and Plaintiff's Motion (Docket No. 8) is granted to the extent that the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the Opinion that follows.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Plaintiff applied for SSI on or about July 26, 2007. (R. 262-67, 294). In his application, he alleged that since December 1, 2000, he had been disabled due to seizures, a learning disability, dyslexia, a knee injury, and high cholesterol. Id. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) James J. Pileggi held a hearing on September 25, 2009, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 38-70). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. Plaintiff’s sister and a vocational expert also were present at the hearing and testified. (R. 60-68). In a decision dated December 1, 2009, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 134-42). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ’s determination by the Appeals Council. (R. 212).

While Plaintiff’s request for review was pending, he filed another SSI application on January 25, 2010, which was granted at the initial level of administrative review on June 15, 2010, and found Plaintiff disabled as of his SSI application date. (R. 148). On August 31, 2010, the Appeals Council notified Plaintiff that his two SSI claims (the unfavorable December 1, 2009 ALJ decision and the favorable June 15, 2010 determination) would be combined for further action and a new ALJ decision. (R. 213-17). The Appeals Council explained that the June 15, 2010 favorable decision did not appear to be supported by substantial evidence because it relied solely on the “inconsistent and unsupported” opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Hillin, who examined Plaintiff on May 11, 2010, and opined that Plaintiff was markedly limited in several areas of psychiatric functioning. (R. 215). The Appeals Council provided Plaintiff with an opportunity to respond to its proposed action, but Plaintiff did not do so. (R. 150, 213-17). On October 20, 2010, the cases were consolidated and remanded to the ALJ for further administrative proceedings. (R. 149-52).

On April 6, 2011, ALJ Pileggi held a second hearing, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 71-126). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Plaintiff’s sister and a vocational expert also were present at the hearing and testified. (R. 100-126). On May 16, 2011, the ALJ issued another unfavorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 21-31). On October 25, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (R. 1-5). Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 10). The issues are now ripe for my review.

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner’s decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is “not merely a quantitative exercise.” Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence – particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians).” Id. The Commissioner’s findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant’s impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to her previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.

A district court, after reviewing the entire record, may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny ...


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