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Morton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 3, 2017

JUSTIN A. MORTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

          Donetta W. Ambrose Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge

         SYNOPSIS

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 9 and 11]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 10 and 12]. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 11] and denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 9].

          I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. On or about October 20, 2010, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI. [R. 87, 97, 255-265]. In both applications, he alleged that since October 1, 2008, he had been disabled due to epilepsy, seizures, frequent migraines, inability to lift over 40 pounds, problems concentrating, short- to long-term memory loss, and trouble sleeping. Id. His last date insured is September 30, 2010. [R.14]. The state agency denied his claims initially, and he requested an administrative hearing. [R. 134-159]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Marty Pillion held a hearing on November 10, 2011. [R. 79-83]. At that hearing, Plaintiff was not represented by counsel, so the ALJ postponed the case to allow Plaintiff the opportunity to retain counsel. Id. ALJ Pillion held a second hearing on January 5, 2012, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [R. 28-78]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. Plaintiff's girlfriend, Cindy George; Plaintiff's uncle, Donald Morton; and a vocational expert also were present at the hearing and testified. [R. 62-75]. In a decision dated March 28, 2012, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. [R. 12-22]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on August 14, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. [R. 1-6].

         Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed an action in this Court on March 24, 2014. [R. 676-678]. On May 4, 2015, I issued an opinion and order granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and remanding the matter for consideration of Plaintiff's testimony and other record evidence regarding his lack of medical insurance as an explanation for his failure to pursue more regular and aggressive medical treatment, especially with regard to his headaches. [R. 679-691]. On June 24, 2015, the Appeals Council vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the matter to an ALJ for action consistent with my May 4, 2015 Order. [R. 692-695].

         Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael S. Kaczmarek held a hearing on November 24, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [R. 591-650]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. Plaintiff's case manager, Samantha McClain, and a vocational expert also were present at the hearing and testified. [R. 635-647]. In a decision dated May 25, 2016, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. [R. 569-582]. Plaintiff subsequently filed an action directly with this Court on July 25, 2016. [ECF No. 1].

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 9 and 11]. The issues are now ripe for my review.

          II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

          A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

         The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to her previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.

         A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedwo ...


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