United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.
Presently before the court in the above-captioned matter are the complaint (Doc. 1) of plaintiff Darnetta Anderson ("Anderson") seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Anderson's claim for social security and disability benefits, the Commissioner's answer thereto (Doc. 7), and the transcript (Docs. 8, 9, 10) of the administrative proceedings. The issues are fully briefed, (Docs. 13, 15), and the matter is ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the court will affirm the Commissioner's decision.
I. Factual and Procedural History
Darnetta Anderson was 29 years old on July 20, 2007, when she slipped, fell, and injured her knee. (Doc. 8-2 at 35). She subsequently underwent three knee surgeries. (Id.) She had previously worked as a corrections officer, certified nursing assistant, and teacher's assistant. (Id. at 50, 52). She has two children. (Id. at 37).
Anderson applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on August 5, 2009. (Id. at 16). Anderson alleges that various physical and mental impairments render her totally disabled and unable to engage in any gainful employment. Anderson alleges that she suffers from the following impairments which substantially limit her ability to do basic work activities: left knee pathology, hypertension, asthma, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol, arthritis, anxiety, and depression. (Id. at 35-36). The Bureau of Disability Determination denied Anderson's initial application for benefits on January 15, 2010. (Id. at 16). The administrative law judge ("ALJ") thereafter held a hearing and heard testimony from Anderson and a vocational expert. (Id. at 31-57).
During the hearing, Anderson testified that she has problems sitting or standing for long periods. (Id. at 38). She testified that she spends the majority of her day with her legs elevated above her heart. (Id. at 38-40). Anderson stated that she takes Lyrica and oxycodone for the pain. (Id. at 41). Anderson testified that she experiences side effects from this medication, such as dizziness, constipation, and diarrhea. (Id. at 42). She stated that she uses an inhaler for asthma, but continues to smoke cigarettes. (Id. at 42, 44). She claimed that she suffers from heart palpitations related to her high blood pressure, and also suffers from gout. (Id. at 43). She testified that she helps get her children ready for school and helps them with their homework, but cannot do chores around the house. (Id. at 44-46). Anderson uses a riding cart to shop at Walmart and states that she cannot stand for more than fifteen minutes and cannot walk for more than five. (Id. at 46-47). She claimed that she can lift a gallon of milk but would not be able to walk with it. (Id. at 47). She testified that she takes Paxil but is not otherwise being treated for anxiety and depression. (Id. at 47).
After the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Anderson was not disabled. (Id. at 13-30). On September 28, 2012, the Social Security Appeals Council denied Anderson's request for review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. (Id. at 2-8). On November 15, 2012, having exhausted her administrative remedies, Anderson commenced this civil action to challenge the decision of the ALJ pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
II. Standard of Review
District courts have jurisdiction to review decisions of the Commissioner denying disability insurance benefits or supplemental social security income based upon 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See id. ("Any individual... may obtain review of [any final decision of the Commissioner] by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of such decision."). When considering such an appeal, district courts have plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater , 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995). Judicial review of the Commissioner's findings of fact is much more limited: the test is deferential and tasks the court to determine whether the factual findings are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); see Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) ("Where... findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); see also Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993); Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).
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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla, " but less than a preponderance, of the evidence. Brown , 845 F.2d at 1213 (citing Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988)). 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. Fed. Mar. Comm'n , 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).
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 v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Mason , 994 F.2d at 1066). The ALJ 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 706-07. Therefore, the district court must scrutinize the record as a whole on appeal. Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).
III. Sequential Evaluation Process
To receive disability benefits, social security claimants 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual is considered to be "unable to engage in substantial gainful activity" when "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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The ALJ employs a five-step process in evaluating DIB and SSI claims. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The process requires the ALJ to query, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) is engaging in "substantial gainful activity"; (2) has an impairment that is "severe" or a combination of impairments that is severe; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the criteria of a "listed impairment" or "listing"; (4) has the "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") to return to his or her past work; and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work in the national economy. Id . The ...