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Granton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant

          Cohn Magistrate Judge



         Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn's report and recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”). (Doc. 22). The R&R proposes denying Plaintiff Dwayne Granton's (hereinafter “plaintiff” or “claimant”) appeal of Defendant Social Security Administration's (hereinafter “SSA”) decision denying his application for supplemental security income (hereinafter “SSI”).[2] Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R (Doc. 23), and they are ripe for disposition.


         On August 1, 2011, plaintiff filed a protective application[3] for SSI due to bipolar, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, depression, and a learning disorder. (Doc. 10, Admin. Record (hereinafter “R.”) at 34; 250-58; 321).[4]Originally, plaintiff alleged that his disability began on July 1, 2011. (R. at 250). He later amended his disability onset date to October 28, 2011. (R. at 211). On January 5, 2012, the SSA denied plaintiff's application. (R. at 113-17). Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (hereinafter “ALJ”). (R. at 121-23).

         The ALJ held hearings on May 2, 2013, and November 20, 2013. Plaintiff testified via telephone that he was born June 3, 1977, and obtained a GED in 1997. (R. at 37, 41). He worked as a cleaner for Imperial Commercial Cleaning. (R. at 40, 43). Since July of 2011, he worked sporadically for Labor Group, Performance Group, and Stop and Shop. (R. at 44, 54-55). Plaintiff has been incarcerated at least three times for convictions of robbery, weapons possession, and retail left. (R. at 37-39).

         As mentioned above, plaintiff has alleged a disability onset date of October 28, 2011, for mental health issues. (R. at 211). Plaintiff testified that he received no inpatient hospitalization for mental health limitations since October of 2011. (R. at 45). Additionally, he received no intensive outpatient treatment for mental health. (R. at 45-46). Plaintiff also testified, however, that he lived in a mental health unit while incarcerated because he is unhappy, sad, not functioning, and endures panic attacks. (R. at 62-64). Plaintiff testified he is unable to work because he “was told in a work environment that [he] was not able to keep up and perform the work properly . . . .” (R. at 53). Stated differently, he testified that his supervisors would not let him work because he “wasn't able to perform to their standard.” (R. at 53; 60-61).

         In a decision issued on November 27, 2013, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claims, finding that plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 8-30). Plaintiff requested that the SSA Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request on March 9, 2015. (R. at 1-5). Thus, the ALJ's decision stood as the Commissioner's final decision.[5]

         As a result of the Commissioner's denial of SSI, plaintiff filed an appeal to this court on May 7, 2015.[6] The Clerk of Court assigned plaintiff's appeal to Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn, and on February 14, 2017, Magistrate Judge Cohn recommended that plaintiff's appeal be denied on grounds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 22). Plaintiff filed timely objections to the R&R (Doc. 23), and they are 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 disposing of objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court must make a de novo determination of those portions of the report against which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c); see also Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir. 1983). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 877 (3d Cir. 1987). The district court judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id.

         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 the 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).


         To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff 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) (emphasis added). An individual is incapable of engaging in “substantial gainful activity” when “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[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner evaluates SSI claims with a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). This analysis requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe;[7] (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of a “listed impairment”; (4) has the “residual functional capacity” to return to his or her past work; and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         In applying the five-step sequential analysis in the instant case, the ALJ found at Step 1 that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 28, 2011. (R. at 13). At Step 2, she found that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: affective disorder; anxiety-related disorder; history of borderline intellectual functioning; personality disorder; polysubstance abuse disorder; and status-post gunshot wound to the abdomen. (R. at 13-14). At Step 3, the ALJ found that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. at 14-18).

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (hereinafter “RFC”) to

perform light work . . . with the following additional restrictions: requires regular breaks, defined as a ten to fifteen minute break midway through the first half of the shift, a similar break midway through the second half of the shift, a twenty to thirty minute break halfway through the shift, and one or two five to ten minute unscheduled restroom or drink breaks; use of bilateral hand/arm levers or cranks limited to occasionally; climbing stairs limited to occasionally; avoid altogether climbing ladders, ropes, scaffolding, or poles as part of the work; stooping, kneeling, crouching or squatting limited to occasionally; avoid altogether crawling on hands and knees or feet as part of the work; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold; avoid altogether work around or with vibrating objects or surfaces; no work around drugs, alcohol, or prescription drugs; limited to simple duties that can be learned on the job in a short period of time and that are consistent with occupations having no GED value greater than one; avoid altogether required direction interaction, not just contact, with the general public as part of the work; no more than occasional required direct interaction, not just contact, with coworkers as part of the work; and avoid work at a production rate pace that requires constant pushing or pulling of materials.

(R. at 118-23). The ALJ then proceeded to Step 4 of the sequential evaluation and received testimony from an impartial vocational expert (hereinafter “VE”).

         The VE testified that plaintiff could no longer work as a cleaner. (R. at 74-75). Based on this testimony and a finding that the non-exertional demands of plaintiff's past work exceed the RFC, the ALJ found at Step 4 that plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. at 23).

         Finally, at Step 5, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could still perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 24-25). Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff could work as a bakery worker, bakery racker, binder/machine feeder/offbearer, or poultry eviscerator. (R. at 24). Because the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is capable ...

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