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Waldor v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 19, 2017

JODI LYNN WALDOR, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 19th day of July, 2017, upon consideration of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed in the above-captioned matter on September 1, 2016, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED.

         AND, further, upon consideration of Plaintiff s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 8) filed in the above-captioned matter on August 5, 2016, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Specifically, Plaintiffs Motion is granted to the extent that it seeks a remand to the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") for further evaluation as set forth below, and denied in all other respects. Accordingly, this matter is hereby remanded to the Commissioner for further evaluation under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in light of this Order.

         I. Background

         On January 28, 2011, Plaintiff Jodi Lynn Waldor filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that she became disabled on February 10, 2010, due to occipital neuralgia, depression, bipolar, diabetes, and high blood pressure. (R. 168).

         After being denied initially on May 20, 2011, Plaintiff sought, and obtained, a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on August 30, 2012. (R. 5-6, 84-88, 29-66). In a decision dated September 7, 2012, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs request for benefits. (R. 7-28). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on September 23, 2013. (R. 1-4). Plaintiff filed an appeal with this Court, and, upon review, the Court remanded the case to the ALJ for reconsideration consistent with the Court's order.

         Upon remand, another hearing was held before the ALJ on October 8, 2015. (R. 761-805). In a decision dated November 17, 2015, the ALJ again denied Plaintiffs request for benefits. (R. 737-56). Plaintiff did not file exceptions to the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction. The ALJ's decision dated November 17, 2015, thus became final 61 days later. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.984(d). Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with this Court, and the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of a social security case is based upon the pleadings and the transcript of the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact. See Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 592 (3d Cir. 2001) (noting that '"[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive'" (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g))); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999) (stating that the court has plenary review of all legal issues, and reviews the ALJ's findings of fact to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence).

         "Substantial evidence" is defined as '"more than a mere scintilla. 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) (quoting Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)). However, 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.'" Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). '"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.'" Id.

         A disability is established when the claimant can demonstrate some medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001). "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 ....'" Id. at 39 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

         The Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability as defined by the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In Step One, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the disability claim will be denied. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If not, the second step of the process is to determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). "An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522(a). If the claimant fails to show that his or her impairments are "severe, " he or she is ineligible for disability benefits. If the claimant does have a severe impairment, however, the Commissioner must proceed to Step Three and determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria for a listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant meets a listing, a finding of disability is automatically directed. If the claimant does not meet a listing, the analysis proceeds to Steps Four and Five.

         Step Four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his or her past relevant work, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e), and the claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to this past relevant work, see Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume his or her former occupation, the evaluation then moves to the fifth and final step.

         At this stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing other available work in the national economy in order to deny a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). In making this determination, the ALJ should consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. See id. The ALJ must further analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's ...


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