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Davis v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 30, 2017

JODIE LYNN DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 30th day of March, 2017, upon consideration of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10) filed in the above-captioned matter on June 2, 2016, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED.

         AND, further, upon consideration of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 8) filed in the above-captioned matter on April 19, 2016, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Specifically, Plaintiff's Motion is granted to the extent that it seeks a remand to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further evaluation as set forth below, and denied in all other respects. Accordingly, this matter is hereby remanded to the Commissioner for further evaluation under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in light of this Order.

         I. Background

         On January 18, 2013, Plaintiff Jodie Lynn Davis protectively filed a claim for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. (R. 156-59; 160-68). Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that she became disabled on May 13, 2010, due to depression, anxiety, a cognitive disorder, and asthma. (R. 160; 181). After being denied benefits initially, Plaintiff sought, and obtained, a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on August 4, 2014. (R. 32-79). In a decision dated September 19, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (R. 11-27). On December 24, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-3). Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with this Court, and the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of a social security case is based upon the pleadings and the transcript of the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact. See Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 592 (3d Cir. 2001) (noting that “'[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive'” (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g))); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999) (stating that the court has plenary review of all legal issues, and reviews the administrative law judge's findings of fact to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence).

         “Substantial evidence” is defined as “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate'” to support a conclusion. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)). However, a “single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [Commissioner] ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence.” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians) - or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion.” Id.

         A disability is established when the claimant can demonstrate some medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001). “A claimant is considered unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity ‘only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he 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 . . . .'” Id. at 39 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability as defined by the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). In Step One, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If so, the disability claim will be denied. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If not, the second step of the process is to determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). “An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.922(a). If the claimant fails to show that his or her impairments are “severe, " he or she is ineligible for disability benefits. If the claimant does have a severe impairment, however, the Commissioner must proceed to Step Three and determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria for a listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant meets a listing, a finding of disability is automatically directed. If the claimant does not meet a listing, the analysis proceeds to Steps Four and Five.

         Step Four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work, see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), and the claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to this past relevant work, see Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume his or her former occupation, the evaluation then moves to the fifth and final step.

         At this stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing other available work in the national economy in order to deny a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ should consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. See Id. The ALJ must further analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether he or she is capable of performing work and is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.923.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In the present case, the ALJ applied the sequential evaluation process in reviewing Plaintiff's claim for benefits. At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 18, 2013, her application date. (R. 13). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff met the second requirement of the process insofar as she had several severe impairments, specifically, borderline intellectual functioning, depression, anxiety, obesity, and asthma. (R. 13-14). After addressing whether Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled the criteria of several listings, including Listing 12.05, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet any of the listings that would satisfy Step Three. (R. 14-17).

         The ALJ next found that Plaintiff retains the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c) except that the work should have no exposure to concentration of extremes of cold, heat, wetness, humidity and pulmonary irritants such as gasses, fumes, dust and odors; the work is limited to unskilled entry work that does not require handling money as a part of the job; the work should have a Language level as found in the DOT of not more than 3 or equivalent to no more than a 4th grade reading level; Plaintiff requires a stable work environment where the work place and the work process remain generally the same from day-today and where the job site is fixed; in addition, the supervisor would direct the employee's work activity so that the employee does not have to prioritize or use judgment to determine order; the ...


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