United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge
This is an action brought under Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the Plaintiff’s claim for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. The matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge on consent of the parties, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 17; Doc. 18). For the reasons expressed herein, the Commissioner’s decision shall be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.
I. Procedural History
On September 7, 2010, Plaintiff Barbara Boggs filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging that she became disabled on October 2, 2007, due to severe bilateral hearing loss and irritable bowel syndrome. Ms. Boggs’s initial application was denied on December 2, 2010, and she timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). On April 12, 2012, Ms. Boggs appeared with her attorney for an administrative hearing before ALJ Sharon Zanatto. On June 14, 2012, they appeared before the ALJ for a supplemental hearing. On June 21, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. Boggs’s application for disability insurance benefits, finding that she was capable of performing her past relevant work as a cashier/stocker. Ms. Boggs requested administrative review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. The Appeals Council denied her request for review on November 15, 2012. This makes the ALJ’s June 21, 2012, decision the “final decision” of the Commissioner subject to judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
Ms. Boggs appealed the Commissioner’s final decision by filing the complaint in this action on January 15, 2013. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner filed her answer to the complaint on March 29, 2013. (Doc. 8). Together with her answer, the Commissioner filed a transcript of the administrative record in Ms. Boggs’s case. (Doc. 9). The matter is now fully briefed by the parties and ripe for decision. (Doc. 14; Doc. 13; Doc. 19).
II. Standard of Review
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court’s review is limited to determining whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence five); Johnson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536 (M.D. Pa. 2012). 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 (1988). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). But 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 [the ALJ’s decision] from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). “In determining if the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record as a whole.” Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d 623, 627 (M.D. Pa. 2003). The question before the Court, therefore, is not whether Ms. Boggs is disabled, but whether the Commissioner’s finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See Arnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 11, 2014) (“[I]t has been held that an ALJ’s errors of law denote a lack of substantial evidence.”) (alterations omitted); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D. Pa. 1981) (“The Secretary’s determination as to the status of a claim requires the correct application of the law to the facts.”); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d at 536 (“[T]he court has plenary review of all legal issues . . . .”).
To receive disability benefits, a claimant 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To satisfy this requirement, a claimant must have a severe physical or mental impairment that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant is able to do past relevant work, considering his or her residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512; Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). Once the claimant has established at step four that he or she cannot do past relevant work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform consistent with his or her RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(f); Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.
III. The ALJ’s Decision
In her June 21, 2012, decision, the ALJ determined that Ms. Boggs last met the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2007. (Admin. Tr. 21, Doc. 9-2, at 22). At step one of the five-step process, the ALJ determined that Ms. Boggs did not engage in any substantial gainful activity between her alleged onset date of October 2, 2007, and her date last insured of December 31, 2007. (Admin. Tr. 21, Doc. 9-2, at 22). At step two, the ALJ determined that, as of her date last insured, Ms. Boggs had a severe impairment: obliterative otosclerosis with bilateral hearing loss. (Admin. Tr. 21, Doc. 9-2, at 22). The ALJ found that the claimed impairment of irritable bowel syndrome was medically determinable but not severe. (Admin. Tr. 21–22, Doc. 9-2, at 22–23). The ALJ also considered several other health conditions found in the claimant’s medical history, finding each to be non-severe. (Admin. Tr. 22, Doc. 9-2, at 23). At step three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Boggs did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled the severity of any one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Admin. Tr. 22, Doc. 9-2, at 23).
Prior to step four, the ALJ determined Ms. Boggs’s RFC based on the evidence of record, including the claimant’s testimony, the findings and opinions of treating and examining physicians, the opinions of a non-examining state agency medical consultant, and the opinions of a non-examining physician who provided testimony at the administrative hearing. The ALJ determined that, through her date last insured, Ms. Boggs retained the RFC to perform a limited range of medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c). (Admin. Tr. 22–23, Doc. 9-2, at 23–24). Specifically, the ALJ found that:
The claimant is capable of hearing warning signals. The claimant is capable of occasionally using the telephone and frequently communicating orally with others, primarily in person. The claimant is limited to working in quiet, very quiet and moderately quiet work environments. The claimant is capable of orally communicating for 50% or less of the workday. The claimant may need to take 2 unscheduled bathroom breaks up to 15 minutes in duration, in addition to normal breaks throughout the workday.
(Admin. Tr. 22-23, Doc. 9-2, at 23–24).
Pursuant to Social Security Ruling 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, the ALJ considered Ms. Boggs’s testimony and found that “the claimant’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the above residual functional capacity assessment.” (Admin. Tr. 24, Doc. 9-2, at 25).
Pursuant to Social Security Ruling 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, the ALJ considered a state agency assessment of Ms. Boggs’s RFC, prepared by a medical consultant who is also an expert in Social Security disability programs, as the medical opinion of a non-examining medical source. (Admin. Tr. 24, Doc. 9-2, at 25). On December 2, 2010, medical consultant Maura Smith-Mitsky, M.D., found that Ms. Boggs suffered from severe bilateral conductive hearing loss due to obliterative otosclerosis in both ears. (Admin. Tr. 392, Doc. 9-7, at 82; Admin. Tr. 394, Doc. 9-7, at 84). The medical consultant further found that Ms. Boggs was required to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat due to her obesity. (Admin. Tr. 392, Doc. 9-7, at 82). Otherwise, the medical consultant found that Ms. Boggs was capable of performing the full range of medium ...