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Robert v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 16, 2017

AUDREY DERRIG ROBERT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Donetta W. Ambrose United States District Judge

         This case is before the court upon plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (AActing Commissioner") denying Plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Currently pending are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 10) will be granted in part, the Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 12) will be denied, and this case will be remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further administrative proceedings.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on December 29, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2009, due to a number of physical and mental impairments. (R. 307; 310). After an ALJ held a hearing and issued a decision denying the application, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review, vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for a de novo hearing. (R. 191-196).

         On remand, a new hearing before a different ALJ was held on April 23, 2014. By decision dated May 23, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 68-84). The ALJ found that although Plaintiff suffers from a number of severe physical and mental impairments, [2] none of those impairments, alone or in combination, meet or equal the criteria of any listed impairment set forth in Appendix 1 to 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpart P. (R. 75-77). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of light work from her alleged onset date until January 26, 2012, but that her ability to perform the full range of light work has been reduced as of January 27, 2012, by the following limitations: occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, crawling, kneeling, and climbing, but never on ladders, ropes and scaffolds; occasional pushing and pulling with the non-dominate, left upper extremity; occasional overhead reaching with the non-dominate, left upper extremity; frequent handling/gross manipulation with the non-dominate, left hand; occasional pushing and pulling with the lower extremities; and only simple, routine tasks, no complex tasks. (R. 77). Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, who took into account Plaintiff's residual functional capacity and other relevant vocational factors, the ALJ concluded that: (1) until January 26, 2012, Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform her past relevant work as a waitress and cashier; and, (2) as of January 27, 2012, while Plaintiff is no longer able to perform her past relevant work, (R. 82), she retains the RFC to perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 83-84). Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 84).

         On October 21, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (R. 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. The instant action followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         When reviewing a disability determination, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). “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). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court is bound by those findings, even if it would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001).

         Despite the deference due to administrative decisions implied by the substantial evidence 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)).

         III. Legal Analysis

         The Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any … physical or mental impairment … 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). The impairment 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. §§423(d)(2)(A).

         The Regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether she has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether her impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listing in Appendix 1; (4) if not, whether the claimant's impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant can perform any other work, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520; Newell v. Commissioner of Social Security, 347 F.3d 541, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2003). If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the claim need not be reviewed further. Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20 (2003). In addition, when there is evidence of a mental impairment, the Commissioner must follow the procedure for evaluating mental impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. §404.1520a. Plummer, 186 F.3d at 432.

         A. Residual Functional Capacity

         The crux of Plaintiff's argument in this case is that the ALJ's RFC finding[3] is not supported by substantial evidence because the record before the ALJ did not contain any medical opinion as to Plaintiff's physical functional limitations. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's failure to obtain such a ...


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