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Knier v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 5, 2017

DEBRA J. KNIER, Plaintiff

          Gerald B. Cohn, Magistrate Judge



         Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn's report and recommendation (Doc. 18, hereinafter “R&R”). The R&R proposes denying Plaintiff Debra J. Knier's (hereinafter “plaintiff” or “claimant”) appeal of Defendant Social Security Administration's (hereinafter “defendant”) decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits (hereinafter “DIB”). Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R, and they are ripe for disposition.


         Plaintiff was born May 13, 1963, had earned her GED, was 52 years old, 5' 3, ” 220 lbs., possessed a driver's license and was able to drive at the time of the oral hearing before the ALJ on September 1, 2015. (Doc. 10, Administrative Record, hereinafter “R.” at 31-32.) She was unemployed at that time, but had a significant work history. She worked from 2000 to 2001 “shipping out packages, weighing them, and putting labels on them, ” lifting “maybe 20 pounds” in the process. (R. at 31.) She remembered working for Schaefer Temporary Services from 2002 to 2003, but did not remember what she did there. (R. at 32-33.) From 2005 to 2009 she worked cutting cable, which involved lifting thirty pounds at most. (R. at 32-33.) From 2009 to 2012 she “finalized and stenciled units, ” which involved no lifting. (R. at 33.)

         Plaintiff stopped working on March 4, 2015 because, she testified, “I had something happen in my life.” (R. at 33.)[2] However, she had filed for Social Security DIB on January 19, 2014, claiming to be disabled by “Mode [sic] disorder, pain in lower back depression, migraines, and joint pain.” (R. at 153.)[3]

         Plaintiff testified that she has lower back pain that “comes and goes” and that “moves around.” (R. at 34-35.) She also reported numbness in her arm and leg, and that sometimes she can't move at all. (R. at 34-35.) She described difficulty being around other people; reacting badly to someone touching her, inability to think, and panic, feeling like something is going to happen, and feeling sick. (R. at 34-35.) She confirmed that she takes ten (10) different prescription medications.[4] Plaintiff testified in detail about her depression and anxiety, and their physical effects on her and her life. (R. at 35-39.)

         On January 7, 2012, plaintiff filed protectively a Title II application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of September 19, 2012.[5] (R. at 150-159.) The initial denial took place on March 10, 2015. (R. at 12). She then filed a written request for a hearing on March 26, 2015. (R. at 4-8). The ALJ determined plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). The ALJ further determined plaintiff has residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). On October 26, 2015 plaintiff, through her attorney, requested review by the Appeals Council. (R. at 7-8.) On January 27, 2016 the Appeals Council denied the request for review. (R. at 1-6.)

         Plaintiff filed the instant appeal on March 15, 2016 (Doc. 1).[6] The appeal was referred to Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn on November 8, 2016. Magistrate Judge Cohn issued his R&R on May 3, 2017 recommending the appeal be denied. (Doc. 18). Plaintiff filed her objections on May 17, 2017 (Doc. 19). Defendant filed her response contesting the objections on May 30, 2017, (Doc. 20), bringing the case to its current posture.


         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, this 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 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 disability insurance claims with a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(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; (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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v). Prior to addressing step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (hereinafter “RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). A plaintiff's RFC ...

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