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Rollert v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 20, 2017

ELIZABETH THERESE ROLLERT Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.

         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 Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 9) and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 11).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”). Plaintiff filed her applications alleging she had been disabled since December 4, 2008. (ECF Nos. 5-7, pp. 2, 4). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Michael S. Kaczmarek, held a hearing on January 31, 2014. (ECF No. 5-3). On July 18, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 5-2, pp. 24-36). After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 9 and 11). The issues are now ripe for 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. § 423(d)(1)(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(a). 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., appx. 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. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

         B. Duty to develop the record

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ failed to meet his duty to properly develop the record. (ECF No. 10, pp. 12-15). Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to develop the record with regard to Plaintiff's records from Jefferson Regional Counseling Center and Dr. Wayne. Id. Plaintiff submits that the ALJ closed the record without even attempting to obtain the records of Dr. Wayne, despite rejecting Dr. Wayne's treating source statement on the basis that treatment records were missing. Id. at p. 12. Thus, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ opinion is not based on substantial evidence such that remand is warranted. Id.

         The regulations make clear that it is the plaintiff's burden to prove that he/she is disabled, which means the plaintiff has the duty to provide medical and other evidence showing that he/she has an impairment(s) and how severe it is. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1512(a-c), 416.912(a-c). This burden does not shift to the ALJ. Nonetheless, an ALJ has the duty to develop the record sufficiently to make a determination of disability. Ventura v. Shalala,55 F.3d 900 (3d Cir. 1995); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1512(d), 416.912(d). Usually, the issue of whether an ALJ had developed the record ...


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