United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge
an action brought under Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and 42 U.S.C.
§ 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Walter
Snyder's claims for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income under 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. 20; Doc. 21). For
the reasons expressed herein, the Commissioner's decision
shall be VACATED, and Mr. Snyder's request for a new
hearing shall be GRANTED.
Background & Procedural History
20, 2012, Mr. Snyder protectively filed applications for
benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.
Mr. Snyder alleges that be became disabled on June 20, 2011,
when he was twenty-eight years old, due to the following
impairments: anxiety, depression, Bipolar II Disorder,
migraines, and back problems. (Admin. Tr. 307; Doc. 9-6 p.
16). In November 2012, Mr. Snyder reported that, while his
claim was pending his symptoms had gotten worse and that he
suffered from additional limitations including decreased grip
strength, and greater difficulty moving and walking. (Admin.
Tr. 344; Doc. 9-6 p. 53).
October 25, 2012, Mr. Snyder's claims were denied at the
initial level of administrative review. During the initial
evaluation of Mr. Snyder's claims, it was determined that
the available evidence established the existence of the
following medically determinable severe impairments: spine
disorders, migraine, obesity, affective disorders, and
anxiety disorders. (Admin. Tr. 113; Doc. 9-3 p. 30). His
claim was denied after an adjudicator determined that Mr.
Snyder was capable of engaging in other work at a sedentary
exertional level. (Admin. Tr. 120; Doc. 9-3 p. 37)(denying
Mr. Snyder's Title II claim); (Admin. Tr. 133; Doc. 9-3
p. 50)(denying Mr. Snyder's Title XVI claim);
see20 C.F.R. §404.1567(a)(defining sedentary
work in Title II claims); 20 C.F.R. §416.967(a)(defining
sedentary work in Title XVI claims). Mr. Snyder appealed this
March 25, 2014, Mr. Snyder appeared and testified during an
administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Reana
K. Sweeney (“ALJ”). Mr. Snyder was represented by
counsel throughout the proceedings. Impartial vocational
expert James H. Earhart (“VE Earhart”) also
appeared and testified.
April 24, 2014, the ALJ denied Mr. Snyder's claims in a
written decision after concluding that Mr. Snyder was capable
of engaging in a limited range of light work that would not
preclude him from engaging in other work. (Admin. Tr. 13-21;
Doc. 9-2 pp. 14-22); see20 C.F.R.
§404.1567(b)(defining light work in Title II claims); 20
C.F.R. §416.967(b)(defining light work in Title XVI
claims). Mr. Snyder requested further administrative review.
4, 2015, the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability
Adjudication and Review denied Mr. Snyder's request for
review. (Admin. Tr. 1-5; Doc. 9-2 pp. 2-6). This makes the
ALJ's April 2014 decision the final decision of the
Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court.
August 2, 2015, Mr. Snyder initiated the instant matter by
filing a timely complaint in federal court. (Doc. 1). In his
complaint, Mr. Snyder alleges that the ALJ's decision was
not made in accordance with the law and regulations, and is
based on findings of fact that are not supported by
substantial evidence. As relief he requests that this Court
reverse the Commissioner's decision and enter an order
awarding benefits, or in the alternative, remand this case to
the Commissioner for a new administrative hearing.
January 27, 2016, the Commissioner filed her answer. (Doc.
8). The Commissioner maintains that the ALJ's decision is
correct and in accordance with the law and regulations, and
that the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by
substantial evidence. Together with her answer, the
Commissioner filed a certified transcript of the
administrative proceedings in this case. (Doc. 9, et
matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for
decision. (Doc. 13; Doc. 15; Doc. 16).
Standard of Review
receive benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the Social
Security Act, the 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. §423(d)(1)(A); 42
U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A). To satisfy this requirement, the
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
significant number in the national economy. 42 U.S.C.
§423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). In
addition, to be eligible to receive benefits under Title II
of the Social Security Act, a claimant must be insured for
disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a); 20
evaluating the question of whether a claimant is under a
disability as it is defined in the Social Security Act, the
Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation
process. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a); 20 C.F.R.
§416.920(a). Under this process, the Commissioner must
determine, in sequence: (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 the severity of an impairment
listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1
(“Listing of Impairments”); (4) whether the
claimant is able to do his past relevant work, considering
his current residual functional capacity
(“RFC”); and, (5) whether the claimant is able to
do any other work that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy, considering his current RFC, age,
education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a);
20 C.F.R. §416.920(a). The claimant bears the initial
burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment
that prevents him from doing his past relevant work. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1512(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a). Once
the claimant has established at step four that he cannot do
past relevant work, the burden then 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 RFC, age,
education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1512(f); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(f).
reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a
claimant's application for benefits, this Court's
review is limited to the question of whether the findings of
the final decision-maker are supported by substantial
evidence in the record. See42 U.S.C. §405(g);
42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3)(incorporating 42 U.S.C.
§405(g) by reference); 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
this Court, therefore, is not whether Mr. Snyder 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 . . . .”).
The ALJ's Decision
April 2014 decision denying Mr. Snyder's applications for
benefits, the ALJ found that Mr. Snyder last met the insured
status requirement of Title II of the Social Security Act
through June 30, 2012. Thus, to prevail on his Title II claim
Mr. Snyder must show that he became disabled on or before
June 30, 2012. This requirement, however, does not apply to
Mr. Snyder's Title XVI claim, which was considered
through the date of the ALJ's written decision.
evaluated Mr. Snyder's claims at each step of the
five-step sequential evaluation process.
one, the ALJ found that Mr. Snyder did not engage in
substantial gainful activity between June 12, 2011, and April
24, 2014. (Admin. Tr. 15; Doc. 9-2 p. 16).
two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence of record
established the presence of the following medically
determinable severe impairments during the relevant period:
degenerative disc disease, migraines, obesity, mood disorder,
and anxiety disorders. Id. The ALJ found that the
following impairments were medically determinable but
non-severe: hypertension, and recurrent hernia. The ALJ found
that Mr. Snyder's hypertension did not result in any
work-related limitations, and that Mr. Snyder's
hernia's had not resulted in work-related limitations for
a period of twelve continuous months or more. (Admin. Tr.
15-16; Doc. 9-2 pp. 16-17).
three the ALJ found that Mr. Snyder did not have an
impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments
listed in the version of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1 that was in effect on the date the ALJ issued her
decision. (Admin. Tr. 16-17; Doc. 9-2 pp. 17-18)
steps three and four of the sequential evaluation process,
the ALJ evaluated Mr. Snyder's RFC. In doing so she
considered and weighed medical opinions by the following
sources: nontreating physician Amatul B. Khalid (“Dr.
Khalid”); nonexamining physician Dilip S. Kar
(“Dr. Kar”); nonexamining psychologist Louis
Poloni (“Dr. Poloni”); and, nonexamining
psychologist Arlene Rattan (“Dr. Rattan”).
December 15, 2011, Dr. Khalid examined Mr. Snyder. Mr. Snyder
reported significant limitations due to back problems,
migraine headaches, and bipolar II disorder. (Admin. Tr.
500-503; Doc. 9-8 pp. 26-30). Mr. Snyder disclosed that he
had been having back problems since he was eighteen years
old, but has no history of fracture, has never had surgery,
has never done physical therapy, and has never seen a
specialist. Id.Mr. Snyder reported that it is
difficult for him to sit for long periods, and can stand for
approximately fifteen minutes before he experiences pain in
his legs. He reported migraines up to three times weekly that
result in the following symptoms: nausea and vomiting,
photophobia, and intolerance of noise. Id. Mr.
Snyder also stated that he had bipolar II disorder, anxiety,
and depression. Id. Mr. Snyder reported that he had
been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility on two occasions
for suicidal/homicidal ideations, and currently experiences
the following symptoms: feelings of worthlessness, sadness,
loneliness, social isolation, inability to tolerate crowds.
Id. On physical examination, Dr. Khalid noted that
Mr. Snyder was morbidly obese, had tenderness in his spine
(cervical, lower thoracic, and upper lumbar), had a slightly
decreased range of motion in his spine on forward flexion
only, and had a positive straight leg raise bilaterally at
sixty degrees. Id. Dr. Khalid assessed that Mr.
Snyder suffered from:
Chronic back pain, since fall injury. Pain to palpation of
cervical spine, lower thoracic and upper lumbar. SLR is
positive at 60 degrees with pain in groin and also lower
back. He would benefit from follow-up with this. He has
trouble laying down on exam table. His range of motion and
limitations are somewhat limited due to his body habitus.
(Admin. Tr. 502; Doc. 9-8 p. 29). In an accompanying
check-box physical RFC assessment, Dr. Khalid assessed that
Mr. Snyder could: occasionally lift or carry up to twenty
pounds; frequently carry up to three pounds; stand and walk
up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; sit up to twenty
minutes in and eight-hour workday; and occasionally bend,
kneel, stoop, crouch, balance, or climb. (Admin. Tr. 509-510;
Doc. 9-8 pp. 36-37).
September 10, 2012, Dr. Khalid examined Mr. Diaz for a second
time. (Admin. Tr. 513-517; Doc. 9-8 pp. 40-44). During this
appointment, Mr. Snyder disclosed that suffered from back
pain, migraines, knee pain, and bipolar II disorder.
Id. Mr. Snyder reported that he sought medical
treatment three days after his accident, had an MRI six years
ago that showed bone spurs and bulging discs, and did
physical therapy approximately five years ago. Id.
Mr. Snyder disclosed that he got migraines once per week.
Id. He reported that he suffers from knee pain, and
that eight years ago an MRI revealed that he has “no
cartilage left, ” but does not see a specialist.
Id. With respect to his mental impairments, Mr.
Snyder reported that he follows with a psychologist, and
experiences the following symptoms: rapid mood swings and
anger outbursts, depression, social isolation/withdrawal, and
dislikes leaving his home. Id. On physical
examination Dr. Khalid noted that Mr. Snyder was morbidly
obese, had gained seventy-five pounds since his last
examination, had tenderness in his spine (thoracic and
lumbar), had crepitus in both knees, had decreased lumbar
flexion and decreased knee flexion, and decreased muscle
strength (4/5 power) in his upper and lower extremities.
Id. Mr. Snyder had a positive straight leg raise
bilaterally at thirty-five degrees. Id. Dr. Khalid
Chronic low back pain, possible DDD, s/p fall. He has trouble
laying down on exam table. His range of motion and
limitations are somewhat limited due to his body habitus. No
recent imaging to review. his[sic] radicular symptoms point
towards S2 dermatome.
(Admin. Tr. 516-; Doc. 9-8 p. 43). In a check-box physical
RFC assessment, Dr. Khalid assessed that Mr. Snyder could:
occasionally lift or carry up to one hundred pounds;
frequently lift or carry up to ten pounds; stand or walk up
to two hours per eight-hour day; sit up to one hour per
eight-hour day; and, occasionally bend, kneel, stoop, crouch,
balance, or climb. (Admin. Tr. 894-95; Doc. 9-11 pp.
133-134). Dr. Khalid also noted that there were certain tones
that Mr. Snyder could not hear. Id.
October 22, 2012, Dr. Kar completed a physical RFC assessment
after reviewing Mr. Snyder's medical records. (Admin. Tr.
115-117; Doc. 9-3 pp. 32-34). Dr. Kar assessed that, despite
his physical impairments, Mr. Snyder could: occasionally lift
and/or carry (including upward pulling) twenty pounds;
frequently lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) ten
pounds; stand and/or walk (with normal breaks) for a total of
two hours; sit (with normal breaks) for a total of about six
hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently reach;
occasionally crawl, crouch, kneel, stoop, climb ramps, and
climb stairs; never climb ramps or climb stairs; and work in
environments where there would be no exposure to hazards
(machinery, heights, etc.). Id. Dr. Kar reported
that these findings apply to Mr. Snyder's current
condition on the date of the opinion, as well as to Mr.
Snyder's condition as of his date last insured for the
purposes of his Title II claim. Id.
December 1, 2011, Dr. Poloni completed a Psychiatric Review
Technique (“PRT”) assessment and evaluated Mr.
Snyder's mental RFC after reviewing Mr. Snyder's
medical records. In his PRT assessment Dr. Poloni assessed
that Mr. Snyder had medically determinable impairments that
did not precisely satisfy the diagnostic criteria of the
following mental disorders: affective disorders, and
anxiety-related disorders. (Admin. Tr. 88-89; Doc. 9- 3 pp.
6-7). He assessed that these disorders resulted in: a mild
restriction of activities of daily living; moderate
difficulties in maintaining social functioning; mild
difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or
pace; and no repeated episodes of decompensation of extended
duration. Id. Dr. Poloni assessed that Mr. Snyder
had no sustained concentration and persistence limitation,
but did have some history of difficulty managing conflicts
effectively. (Admin. Tr. 92-93; Doc. 9-3 pp. 9-10). Dr.
Poloni also reported, however, that despite his social
limitation, Mr. Snyder would be able to function adequately
in a social context. Id.
August 31, 2012, Dr. Rattan completed a PRT assessment and
evaluated Mr. Snyder's mental RFC after reviewing Mr.
Snyder's medical records. In her PRT assessment Dr.
Rattan assessed that Mr. Snyder had medically determinable
impairments that did not precisely satisfy the diagnostic
criteria of the following mental disorders: affective
disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. (Admin.
Tr. 113-114; Doc. 9-3 pp. 30-31). She assessed that these
disorders resulted in: a mild restriction of activities of
daily living; moderate difficulties maintaining social
functioning; moderate difficulties maintaining concentration,
persistence or pace; and no repeated episodes of
decompensation of extended duration. Id. Dr. Rattan
reported that this assessment accurately represented Mr.
Snyder's current condition, and his condition as of his
date last insured for the purposes of his Title II claim.
Id. In her mental RFC assessment, Dr. Rattan
assessed that Mr. Snyder could do the following despite the
limitations resulting from his mental disorders: make simple
decisions and carry out short, simple instructions; maintain
socially appropriate behavior; and perform personal care
functions needed to maintain an acceptable level of personal
hygiene. (Admin. Tr. 117-119; Doc. 9-3 pp. 34-36). She
concluded that Mr. Snyder could meet the basic mental demands
of competitive work on a sustained basis despite the
limitations resulting from his mental impairments.
on her consideration of the above medical opinions, and of
the other relevant evidence of record, the ALJ found that,
during the relevant period, Mr. Snyder had the RFC to engage
in light work, as defined in 20 ...