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Alvarez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 3, 2017

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is an action brought under Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. §405(g) by reference), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Daisy Alvarez's (“Ms. Alvarez's”) claim supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge on consent of the parties, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 15; Doc. 16).

         Ms. Alvarez, a high school educated former day care worker, sought benefits under the Social Security Act at age thirty-five after an automobile accident resulted in lasting physical injuries and left her mentally traumatized. She alleges that the Commissioner's final decision denying her claim is not supported by substantial evidence because the Commissioner failed to provide evidence about the existence of a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Ms. Alvarez could perform. The Court finds considerable merit in Ms. Alvarez's argument. The 2, 077 jobs identified in this case fall below the threshold of what national statistics constitute a “significant” number. As such, the Court is compelled to conclude that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner's final decision denying Ms. Alvarez's application for benefits shall be VACATED and this case shall be REMANDED to the Commissioner to conduct a new administrative hearing pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         I. Procedural History

         On June 6, 2012, Ms. Alvarez protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income alleging a disability onset date of February 14, 2012, due to the following conditions: depression, anxiety, back pain, scoliosis, post-surgical shoulder impingement pain, carpal tunnel, right knee issues, polyarthritis, high blood pressure, and hypothyroidism. (Admin. Tr. 206; Doc. 9-6 p. 16).

         On November 9, 2012, Ms. Alvarez's application for benefits was denied at the initial level of administrative review. During the initial review of Ms. Alvarez's claim, the disability examiner found that Ms. Alvarez had severe impairments due to osteoarthritis, affective disorders, and anxiety disorders. (Admin. Tr. 82; Doc. 9-3 p. 7). The disability examiner concluded that Ms. Alvarez's impairments did not prevent Ms. Alvarez from engaging in a range of unskilled light work, and concluded that Ms. Alvarez could engage in other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Admin. Tr. 88; Doc. 9-3 p. 13).

         On December 11, 2012, Ms. Alvarez filed a written request for an administrative hearing. On January 23, 2014, Ms. Alvarez appeared and testified during a video hearing before Administrative Law Judge John P. Ramos (“ALJ”). Ms. Alvarez appeared in Binghamton, New York, and the ALJ presided from Syracuse, New York. Ms. Alvarez was represented by counsel throughout the proceedings. After it became apparent that additional records were necessary, the ALJ adjourned the hearing until those records were available. A second supplemental hearing was held on June 3, 2014. Once again, Ms. Alvarez appeared and testified with the assistance of counsel. In addition, impartial vocational expert Linda N. Vause (“VE Vause”) appeared and testified.

         On June 13, 2014, the ALJ denied Ms. Alvarez's claim in a written decision. The ALJ concluded that Ms. Alvarez was ‘not disabled' under the Social Security Act because she retained the capacity to engage in a range of unskilled light work that did not preclude her from engaging in other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ's determination is supported by VE Vause's testimony that Ms. Alvarez could engage in work as a Chaperone (DOT #352.667-014), and that this occupation is represented by approximately 2, 077 jobs in the national economy.[2]

         Upon receipt of the ALJ's decision, Ms. Alvarez sought further review from the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. On March 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Alvarez's request for review.

         On April 27, 2016, Ms. Alvarez initiated this action by filing a complaint. In her complaint, Ms. Alvarez alleges that the conclusions reached by the ALJ in the final decision denying Ms. Alvarez's claims are not supported by substantial evidence and are contrary to the law and regulations. (Doc. 1 ¶7). As relief, Ms. Alvarez requests that she be awarded benefits, or in the alternative, that this matter be remanded to the Commissioner to conduct a new administrative hearing.

         On July 7, 2016, the Commissioner filed her answer. (Doc. 8). In her response, the Commissioner maintains that the ALJ's final decision denying Ms. Alvarez's claim was made in accordance with the law and regulations and is supported by substantial evidence.

         This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for resolution. (Doc. 10); (Doc. 11); (Doc. 12).

         II. Standard of Review

         To receive benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, the claimant 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A). To satisfy this requirement, the claimant must have a severe physical or mental impairment that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in significant number in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In evaluating the question of whether a claimant is under a disability as it is defined in the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listing of Impairments”); (4) whether the claimant is able to do his past relevant work, considering his current residual functional capacity (“RFC”);[3] and, (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his current RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a). The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that prevents him from doing his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §416.912(a)(effective June 12, 2014, through Apr. 19, 2015).[4] Once the claimant has established at step four that he cannot do past relevant work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with his RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. §416.912(f)(effective June 12, 2014, through Apr. 19, 2015).

         When reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a claimant's application for benefits, this Court's review is limited to the question of whether the findings of the final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3)(incorporating 42 U.S.C. §405(g) by reference); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200(3d Cir. 2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536(M.D.Pa. 2012). 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.” Pierce v. Underwood,487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales,402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). 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 [the ALJ's decision] from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime Comm'n,383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). “In determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record as a whole.” Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d 623, 627 (M.D.Pa. 2003). The question before this Court, therefore, is not whether Ms. Alvarez is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. SeeArnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205, at *1 (M.D.Pa. Mar. 11, 2014)(“[I]t has been held that an ...


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