United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
THOMAS W. GRAVER, Plaintiff
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner Of Social Security Administration, Defendant
JAMES M. MUNLEY, District Judge.
Before the court for disposition is the appeal of Plaintiff Thomas W. Graver of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security Administration's denial of his applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (hereinafter "DIB") and Supplemental Security Income Benefits (hereinafter "SSI"). The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.
On October 5, 2009, plaintiff was involved in an accident. The mountain bike he was riding was struck by a car. (Doc. 11, Administrative Record (hereinafter "R.") at 236). The accident caused injury to plaintiff's left leg/knee, and initially he was diagnosed with a comminuted fracture of his left fibula, a bone in his lower leg. (R. at 242). He was placed in a knee immobilizer. (R. at 236-46). In addition to the fibula fracture, plaintiff also tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), his medial collateral ligament (MCL) and his lateral meniscus. (R. at 249). After several months of physical therapy, on April 9, 2010, plaintiff had reconstructive surgery on his knee in which the ligaments were also repaired. (R. at 257-58). After the surgery, he returned to physical therapy from which he was discharged in September 2010. (R. 421-23). Plaintiff continued to follow up with his orthopedic surgeon, and he also continued to walk with the assistance of a cane.
In July 2010, plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB. He reported that he became disabled on the date of the bicycle accident, October 5, 2009. (R. at 111, 118). He stated that he was unable to work because of the injuries he sustained in the accident. (R. at 59).
On December 28, 2010, the applications for SSI and DIB were denied. Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter "ALJ"). On February 14, 2012, ALJ Ronald Sweeda held a video conference hearing. On March 16, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not "disabled" and thus not entitled to DIB or SSI benefits. (R. at 16-24). Plaintiff then requested review from the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (R. at 11). Appeals Council denied the request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security. (R. at 1-3). Plaintiff then filed the instant appeal by filing a complaint in this court. (Doc. 1, Compl.).
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 198, 204 (3d Cir. 2008). 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).
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. § 423(d)(1)(A) (emphasis added). An individual is incapable of engaging 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 ...