United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania
The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff Latoya Isaac's claim for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits.
Isaac applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and SSI benefits under Title II and Title XVI, on June 29, 2009. (Tr. 163-75.) In both applications, Isaac's alleged onset date was August 15, 2007. (Id.) These claims were denied, and the alleged onset date was subsequently amended to January 9, 2009, the day after her previous unfavorable decision. (Tr. 35, 80-91, 248.)
Isaac requested a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Office of Disability Adjudication and Review of the Social Security Administration, and one was held on August 20, 2009. (Tr. 34.) At the hearing, Isaac was represented by counsel, and a Vocational Expert testified. (Tr. 32-78.) On September 17, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying Isaac's application. (Tr. 13-21.) On October 13, 2010, Isaac filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. (Tr. 7-9.) The Appeals Council denied Isaac's request for review on April 12, 2012. (Tr. 1-6.) Thus, the ALJ's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Issac filed a complaint in this Court on June 13, 2012. (Doc. 1.) Isaac also filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 2), which the Court granted (Doc. 3). After motions for extensions of time to file briefs were granted for both parties (Docs. 8, 11), supporting and opposing briefs were submitted (Docs. 10, 13), and the appeal became ripe for disposition.
Isaac, who was born on February 5, 1976 (Tr. 75),  graduated from high school and then attended Penn State, Ogontz Campus, for one year, where she studied electrical engineering. (Tr. 36.) In the past, Isaac worked as a warehouse worker, categorized as a medium, unskilled position, and a laminating machine operator, categorized as a light, semi-skilled position usually undertaken at a medium exertional level. (Tr. 72.) Isaac has not worked since her alleged onset date of disability, January 9, 2009. (Tr. 36.)
Isaac states that she has mental health, knee and back issues. She has been under the care of The Stevens Center and a therapist for mental health issues. She has also undergone physical therapy at the Drayer Physical Therapy Institute for knee and back pain.
For the reasons set forth below, we will affirm the decision of the Commissioner.
II. Standard of Review
When considering a social security appeal, the Court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). 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. The factual findings of the Commissioner, "if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive" 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "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." Johnson. 529 F.3d at 200 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Hartranft v. Apfel. 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). "It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Prummer v. Apfel. 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing Ventura v. Shalala. 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)) (quoting Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citations omitted)). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has stated,
[O]ur decisions make clear that determination of the existence vel non of substantial evidence is not merely a quantitative exercise. A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [Commissioner] 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) - or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion.
Morales v. Apfel. 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Kent v. Schweiker. 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983); Gilliland v. Heckler. 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986)). Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Id. (citing Smith v. Califano. 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981)).
III. Sequential Evaluation Process
The plaintiff must establish that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Fargnoli v. Massanari. 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Plummer. 186 F.3d at 427) (internal quotations omitted). "A claimant is considered unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity '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'" Fargnoli. 247 F.3d at 39 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Commissioner ...