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Fickes v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 4, 2014

JASON BYRON FICKES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

OPINION ORDER OF COURT and ORDER OF COURT

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 14). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 10 and 15). Plaintiff also has filed a Concise Statement of Material Facts and a Reply Brief. (Docket Nos. 11 and 16). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 14) and denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 9).

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act") and for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI in November 2010. (R. 171-83). In his applications, he alleged that he had been disabled since May 1, 2009. Id . Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Marty R. Pillion held a hearing on April 5, 2012, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 28-66). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id . A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. (R. 57-65). In a decision dated June 15, 2012, 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. 14-24). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on November 1, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4). Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 14). 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 he 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, 416.920. 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 him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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 DETERMINING THAT PLAINTIFF HAS THE RESIDUAL FUNCTIONAL CAPACITY TO PERFORM SEDENTARY WORK

The ALJ determined as part of the sequential evaluation process that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that he was limited to occasional balancing, stooping, and climbing ramps and stairs; no kneeling, crouching, crawling, balancing or climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; no exposure to hazards such as heights or moving machinery; no exposure to weather, wetness, temperature extremes, humidity, or atmospheric conditions such as smoke, fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation; and occasional speaking. The ALJ further limited Plaintiff to simple, routine, repetitive tasks and simple work-related decisions; infrequent changes in work setting defined as no more than one per day; occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors; and no interaction with the public. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's need to elevate his legs would be accommodated by the normal morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks. (R. 19). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC ...


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