United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
ROBERT I. SARGENT, IV, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, Magistrate Judge.
This is an action brought under Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)(incorporating 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by reference), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying the Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge on consent of the parties, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 17, Doc. 18). For the reasons expressed herein, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 15, 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI alleging disability due to "Sed, neck injury, back injury, depression, anti-social, anxiety disorder, ibs, and hbs, " beginning June 14, 1989. (Admin Tr. 659, Doc, 10-4 p. 8). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on September 14, 2011. Plaintiff requested, and was granted, the opportunity to present his case at an administrative hearing. On June 8, 2012, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Susan L. Torres in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Impartial Vocational Expert ("VE") Carmine Abraham also appeared and testified at the hearing. Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision dated June 28, 2012. Thereafter, Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council. His request, however, was denied on December 16, 2013, making the ALJ's June 28, 2012 decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.
On February 12, 2014, Plaintiff filed a complaint requesting that this Court enter an order reversing the ALJ's June 2012 decision and awarding benefits, or, in the alternative, that this case be remanded for a new administrative hearing. (Doc. 1). On May 2, 2014, the Commissioner filed her Answer. (Doc. 9). Together with her Answer, the Commissioner filed a copy of the administrative transcript. (Doc. 10). This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is now ripe for decision. (Docs. 11, 12)
A. STANDARD OF REVIEW
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court's review is limited to determining whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(sentence five); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200(3d Cir. 2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536(M.D.Pa. 2012). 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." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). But 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 [the ALJ's decision] from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo v. Fed. Maritime Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). "In determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record as a whole." Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d 623, 627 (M.D.Pa. 2003). The question before the Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that he is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See Arnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205, at *1 (M.D.Pa. Mar. 11, 2014)("[I]t has been held that an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial evidence.")(alterations omitted); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D.Pa. 1981)("The Secretary's determination as to the status of a claim requires the correct application of the law to the facts."); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990)(noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d at 536 ("[T]he court has plenary review of all legal issues....").
To receive benefits under the Social Security Act by reason of disability, a claimant 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). To satisfy this requirement, a claimant must have a severe physical or mental impairment that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant is able to do his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering his or her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5) by reference); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912; Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. Once the claimant has established at step four that he or she cannot do past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with his or her age, education, work experience and RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(f); Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.
Before completing step four of this process, the ALJ must also determine the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). RFC is defined as "that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s)." Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1); SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184. In making this assessment, the ALJ considers all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any non-severe impairments identified by the ALJ at step two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(2).
B. THE ALJ'S DECISION
In her June 28, 2012 decision, the ALJ proceeded through each step of the sequential evaluation process. She found that Plaintiff, born on September 15, 1968, was a "younger person" as defined by the Social Security Regulations when his application was filed, but during the pendency of this action, Plaintiff progressed into the "closely approaching advanced age" category. (Admin Tr. 28, Doc. 10 p. 31). Further, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a limited education based on Plaintiff's testimony that he was enrolled in a special program for socially and emotionally disturbed ("SED") children when he was in second grade, dropped out of school after finishing ninth grade and earned his G.E.D. in the early nineties. (Admin Tr. 28, Doc. 10 p. 31; Admin Tr. 1203, Doc. 10-7 p. 87).
At step one of her analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between June 15, 2011 and the date of her decision. (Admin Tr. 28, Doc. 10 p. 23). In fact, Plaintiff testified that he last worked as a lead handler for four months in 1989, when he was in his early twenties, but was forced to resign due to his back pain. (Admin Tr. 1204, Doc. 10-7 p. 88). Since that time, Plaintiff has been incarcerated on multiple occasions, and spent an estimated total of ten to eleven years in prison due on various charges. (Admin Tr. 1205, ...