United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania
TRINA S. GOLUBOSKY, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT
DONETTA W. AMBROSE U.S. SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE
Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 13). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 10 and 14). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, Defendant's Motion (Docket No. 13) is granted and Plaintiff's Motion (Docket No. 9) is denied.
Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (''DIB'') under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. '' 401-433. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on or about July 7, 2010. (R. 10, 139-48, 160, 184). In her application, she alleged that since April 3, 2006, she had been disabled due to fibromyalgia, arthritis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, memory loss, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Id. Plaintiff’s date last insured for DIB purposes was December 31, 2010. (R. 160). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Geoffrey S. Casher held a hearing on September 21, 2011, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 23-54). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. In a decision dated December 22, 2011, 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. 10-18). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ’s determination by the Appeals Council, and, on June 25, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (R. 1-5). Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.
The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 13). 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 she 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. § 404.1520(a). 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 her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she 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 v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).
B. WHETHER THE ALJ ERRED IN FINDING THAT PLAINTIFF’S MENTAL IMPAIRMENTS WERE NOT SEVERE
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at Step 2 of the sequential evaluation process in determining that her mental impairments – depression and anxiety/stress – were non-severe. Pl.'s Br. [ECF ...