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Ragen v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 20, 2017

JOHN RAGEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          Kane Judge

         The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)[1], denying Plaintiff John Ragen's application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI. For the reasons set forth below, we will vacate the decision of the Commissioner and remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and “insured, ” that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the “date last insured.” It is undisputed that Ragen met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. (Tr. 25).[2]

         SSI is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income. Insured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant's eligibility for supplemental security income benefits.

         Ragen applied protectively for DIB on May 20, 2013 and SSI on May 3, 2013, alleging disability for both claims beginning February 7, 2013. (Tr. 23). Ragen's date last insured for purposes of his DIB claim is December 31, 2013. (Tr. 25, 46). His claims were initially denied on August 21, 2013. (Tr. 23, 111-38).

         Ragen requested a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Office of Disability and Adjudication and Review of the Social Security Administration, and one was held on September 5, 2014. (Tr. 23, 44-90). At the hearing, Ragen was represented by counsel, and a Vocational Expert testified. (Tr. 44-90). On December 11, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Ragen's applications. (Tr. 127-43). Ragen's request for a review with the Appeals Council was denied on May 5, 2016. (Tr. 1-6). Thus, the ALJ's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Ragen filed a complaint in this Court on July 11, 2016. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner filed an answer on September 16, 2016. (Doc. 13). After supporting and opposing briefs were submitted (Docs. 15 and 16), the appeal[3] became ripe for disposition.

         Ragen was born on June 25, 1971 (Tr. 37), has a limited education, and is able to communicate in English. (Tr. 37). In the past, Ragen worked as a stock person, industrial cleaner, loader/unloader, packager and cleaner/janitor. (Tr. 36, 37). Ragen has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of February 7, 2013. (Tr. 25).

         The ALJ found Ragen to have the following severe impairments: coronary artery disease, history of myocardial infarction, hypertension, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and cannabis abuse. (Tr. 25).

         II. Standard of Review

         When considering a social security appeal, the Court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). However, our review of the Commissioner's findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether those findings are supported by “substantial evidence.” Id. The factual findings of the Commissioner, “if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “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.” Johnson, 529 F.3d at 200 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). “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) (citing Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citations omitted)). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated,

[O]ur decisions make clear that determination of the existence vel non of substantial evidence is not merely a quantitative exercise. 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. 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.

Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983); Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986)). The Commisioner 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, 203 (3d Cir. 2008). Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Gilliland, 786 F.2d at 183 (citing Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981)).

         III. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The plaintiff must establish that there is some “medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period.” Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427) (internal quotations omitted). “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 . . . .'” Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 39 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Commissioner follows a five-step inquiry pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 to determine whether the claimant is disabled. In Plummer, the Third Circuit set out the five-steps:

In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § [404.]1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial activity, the disability claim will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987) . . . . In step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails to show that her impairments are “severe, ” she is ineligible for disability benefits.
In step three, the Commissioner compares the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five. Step four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacityto perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to her past relevant work. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994).
If the claimant is unable to resume her former occupation, the evaluation moves to the final step. At this stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate the claimant is capable of performing other available work in order to deny a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The ALJ must show there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can perform, consistent with her medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. The ALJ must analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether she is capable of performing work and is not disabled. See ...

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