United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.
AND NOW, this 24 th day of September, 2014, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to plaintiff's request for review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 8) be, and the same hereby is, granted, and the Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 10) be, and the same hereby is, denied. Pursuant to sentence 4 of 42 U.S.C. §405(g), the case will be remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
When the Acting Commissioner determines that a claimant is not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act, the findings leading to such a conclusion must be based upon substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'" Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).
Despite the deference to administrative decisions required by this standard, reviewing courts "retain a responsibility to scrutinize the entire record and to reverse or remand if the [Commissioner's] decision is not supported by substantial evidence.'" Morales v. Apfel , 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000), quoting, Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981). In evaluating whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ's findings, "leniency [should] be shown in establishing the claimant's disability, and... the [Commissioner's] responsibility to rebut it [should] be strictly construed....'" Reefer v. Barnhart , 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003), quoting, Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979). These wellestablished principles dictate that the court remand this case to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings at step 3 of the sequential evaluation process consistent with this Opinion.
Plaintiff filed his application for SSI on April 29, 2011, alleging disability due to right fifth toe amputation, diabetes, asthma, obesity and difficulty comprehending. Plaintiff's application was denied. At plaintiff's request, an ALJ held a hearing on October 2, 2012, at which he appeared and testified while represented by counsel. On November 20, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on July 12, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The instant action followed.
Plaintiff, who has a marginal education, was 35 years old when he applied for SSI and is classified as a younger individual under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §416.963(c). Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a security guard and video rental clerk, but he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time since filing his SSI application.
After reviewing plaintiff's medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ first found that the medical evidence established that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of a history of right fifth toe amputation, gangrene of the toe, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, obesity and mild mental retardation; however, those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 ("Appendix 1").
The ALJ next found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with a number of additional limitations. Plaintiff is limited to standing and walking a total of two hours in an eight-hour work day, and he must have the opportunity to alternate between standing and sitting every hour. In addition, he is limited to occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and climbing of ramps and stairs, but he is precluded from climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. Further, plaintiff must avoid exposure to extreme temperatures, wetness, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation and workplace hazards, such as moving machinery and unprotected heights. Finally, plaintiff is limited to performing simple, routine tasks with only short and simple work-related decisions and is restricted to few work place changes (collectively, the "RFC Finding").
The ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work because it exceeds his residual functional capacity. However, based upon testimony by a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as an order clerk, addresser/mail sorter or document preparer. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.
The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment that can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment or impairments must be so severe that the claimant "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...." 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(3).
The Social Security Regulations delineate a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. The ALJ must assess: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether his impairment meets or equals the criteria listed in Appendix 1; (4) if not, whether the claimant's impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4). If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id.
In this case, plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings at steps 3 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process. At step 3, plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by finding that he does not meet listing §12.05C for mental retardation. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ's step 5 Finding is not supported by substantial evidence because the RFC finding and hypothetical question to the vocational expert did not account for his claimed need to lie down during the day. Although plaintiff's step 5 argument is without merit, we conclude that the ALJ erred at step 3 for the reasons explained below.
Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's findings at step 3 of the sequential evaluation process. At step 3, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments. Burnett v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). The listings describe impairments that prevent an adult, regardless of age, education or work experience, from performing any gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §416.925(a); Knepp v. Apfel , 204 F.3d 78, 85 (3d Cir. 2000). "If the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment, then [the claimant] is per se disabled and no further analysis is necessary." Burnett , 220 F.3d at 119.
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by finding that he does not meet listing §12.05C for mental retardation. ...