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Poust v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 26, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Social Security Commissioner, Defendant



Before the court for disposition is Plaintiff Ryan Eric Poust’s (hereinafter “plaintiff”) appeal from a final administrative decision of the Social Security Commissioner denying his claim for supplemental security income benefits.[1](Doc. 1).


On November 24, 2010, plaintiff filed a protective application for supplemental security income (hereinafter “SSI”) benefits due to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (hereinafter “COPD”), blindness in the left eye, gastroesophageal reflux disorder and emphysema.[2] (Doc. 7, Admin. R. (hereinafter “R.”) at 21, 68).[3] On May 25, 2011, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied plaintiff’s application. (R. at 19). Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (hereinafter “ALJ”).

ALJ Michele Stolls held a hearing on July 17, 2012. (R. at 32-63). At the hearing, the ALJ noted that plaintiff was forty-three (43) years old and cares for his son every other weekend. (R. at 24, 38-39). The ALJ also indicated that plaintiff is not currently working and relies on his father to pay his expenses. (R. at 24). Plaintiff recently stopped smoking and began eating healthier resulting in the loss of fifty (50) pounds from January 2011 to July 2011. (R. at 24, 37). As of the date of the ALJ hearing, plaintiff weighed 198 pounds. (Id.)

Plaintiff testified that he has a driver’s license and has no issues with driving. (R. at 24, 41). Plaintiff is Christian, but he does not attend church services. (R. at 43). He also enjoys watching sports. (Id.)

Plaintiff indicated that he cannot work because he suffers from shortness of breath and fatigue. (R. at 24, 44). He can sit for thirty (30) minutes before his back starts to hurt and he begins to feel sleepy. (Id.) His treating physician has prescribed a nebulizer, inhalers and stomach medications. (R. at 24). Plaintiff uses his nebulizer five (5) times a day, every day and uses his inhalers 3-4 times a day as needed. (Id.) He also takes hydrocodone for back pain and is often prescribed the steroid Prednisone to help control his breathing difficulties. (Id.)

In a decision issued November 5, 2012, the ALJ denied plaintiff’s claim, finding that he was not “disabled” as of November 24, 2010 and thus not entitled to benefits. (R. at 27). Plaintiff then filed for review before the Social Security Administration Office of Disability Adjudication and Review Appeals Council. (R. at 14-15). The Appeals Council denied the request for review on May 19, 2014. (R. at 2-6). Thus, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security in plaintiff’s case. Subsequently, plaintiff instituted the instant action to challenge the denial of benefits. (Doc. 1, Compl.). He argues that substantial evidence fails to support the ALJ’s decision. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.


The court has federal question jurisdiction over this 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 his 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 has defined “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 has explained 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, remand ...

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