United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
SUSAN M. LAMONTAGNE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
JAMES M. MUNLEY, District Judge.
Before the court for disposition is Plaintiff Susan M. LaMontagne's (hereinafter "plaintiff") appeal of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security Administration's (hereinafter "defendant") denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (hereinafter "DIB"). The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.
Plaintiff filed for DIB on April 8, 2011, claiming disability due to cervical spine degenerative disc disease, tenosynovitis of the left foot and ankle, obesity, depression, and anxiety. (Doc. 9, Administrative Record (hereinafter "R.") at 14, 131). The Social Security Administration initially denied plaintiff's claim on July 28, 2011. (R. at 12). In response, plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter "ALJ"). (Id.)
ALJ Michele Stolls convened a hearing on July 17, 2012, at which plaintiff appeared and testified. (Id.) Plaintiff testified that she worked as a deli clerk and meat cutter, a hairstylist, and, most recently, a laborer. (R. at 156). She has not worked since December 31, 2004, allegedly due to her disability. (R. at 131). Plaintiff further stated that she suffered injuries in a car accident in the fall of 2003, necessitating surgery. (R. at 151). At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ kept the record open for fourteen days, during which time the plaintiff submitted additional evidence. In a decision issued September 17, 2012, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim, finding that plaintiff was not "disabled" and thus not entitled to DIB. (R. at 12-26).
Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. (R. at 7). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request on March 12, 2014. (R. at 1-6). The instant appeal followed. (Doc. 1).
The court has federal question jurisdiction over the Social Security Administration appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) ("The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title."); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has her principal place of business....").
Standard of Review
In reviewing a social security appeal, the court must determine whether "substantial evidence" supports the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). The United States Supreme Court defines "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals explains that "substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla;' it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'" Hagans, 694 F.3d at 292 (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427).
The court should not reverse the Commissioner's findings merely because evidence may exist to support the opposite conclusion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for those of the fact-finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) (indicating that when an ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, courts are bound by those findings, even if they would have decided the factual inquiry differently). 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 an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo, 383 U.S. at 620.
Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, " Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981) and "must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). "When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.'" Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (quoting Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993)). The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 204 (3d Cir. 2008). Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).
Another critical requirement is that the Commissioner adequately develop the record. Poulous v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 95 (3d Cir. 2007) (reminding ALJs of their duty to develop the record); Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 902 (3d Cir. 1995) (stating that ALJs have an affirmative duty to develop a full and fair record in social security cases). If the record is not adequately developed, ...