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Bruton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 5, 2018

NEIL C. BRUTON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          Conner Chief Judge



         I. Introduction

         This is an action brought under Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the claim of Plaintiff Neil Calvin Bruton (“Mr. Bruton”) for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act.

         This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to prepare a report and recommended disposition, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Jurisdiction is conferred on this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). For the reasons expressed herein, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's final decision be AFFIRMED, and the Plaintiff's requests for relief be DENIED.

         II. Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiff Neil Bruton was born on September 5, 1956, and is an adult individual who resided within the Middle District of Pennsylvania at all times relevant to this action. (Tr. 29, 42). Mr. Bruton completed the ninth grade, has not obtained his GED, and has not had any vocational training. (Id. at 29). He can read and write the English language. (Id.). His income is derived from selling his plasma and receiving food stamps. (Id. at 30.) Mr. Bruton's past relevant work includes work as a material handler and industrial truck operator. (Id. at 19).

         Mr. Bruton testified that he sees friends and family. (Id. at 31, 364). He has a driver's license and is able to operate a motor vehicle. (Id. at 31). Mr. Bruton also reported that he goes outside every other day and in addition to riding in a car, he walks and uses public transportation. (Id. at 167). He can prepare meals on a daily basis. (Id. at 166). He can complete household chores including: sweeping, mopping, laundry, and dusting. (Id. at 166). He stated he can count change, though he has a hard time handling a savings account or using checks and money orders. (Id. at 167). Mr. Bruton reported spending time with his family and having no issues getting along with authority figures. (Id. at 168, 364).

         Mr. Bruton has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and claimed to hear voices that encourage him to commit crimes or acts of violence. (Id. at 284, 362, 364). He complained he has trouble focusing and has a hard time being around people. (Id. at 164-65). Large groups of people make him particularly uncomfortable, he said, because he feels people are against him or out to get him. (Id. at 169). This has resulted in Mr. Bruton being fired for confrontations with other employees. (Id. at 170). Mr. Bruton additionally claims he has problems with memory, has trouble completing simple tasks, and has a hard time concentrating. (Id. at 169). He said he panics under stress and is unable to handle changes in his routine. (Id. at 170). Mr. Bruton has a history with drugs and alcohol and, in June 2013, he admitted to examiners at Holy Spirit Hospital that he had been drinking and smoking crack cocaine and marijuana before coming to the hospital. (Id. at 17, 238).

         From 2012 to 2013, Mr. Bruton was treated by psychiatrist Yury Yarslavsky, M.D. (Id. at 280-81). On January 4, 2012, Dr. Yarslavsky reported Mr. Bruton was “feeling much more depressed and started hearing voices again.” (Id. at 278). But he also noted Mr. Bruton “appeared pleasant and cooperative. Eye contact was good. Mood and affect appeared dysphoric. The patient admitted hearing multiple voices. He denied command hallucinations or hallucinations of other senses.” (Id.). This later observation was also documented on February 29, 2012; March 22, 2012; and, May 3, 2012. (Id. 272, 274, 276).

         On August 23, 2012, Dr. Yarslavsky reported that Dr. Burton's “mood was somewhat anxious. Again, he admitted occasional auditory hallucinations. He denied hallucinations of other senses or command hallucinations.” (Id. at 266). Mr. Bruton showed a marked improvement on December 13, 2012. On that date, Dr. Yarslavsky noted that Mr. Bruton, “appeared pleasant and cooperative. More animated than usual, in a good sense. Admitted non-command auditory hallucinations. He denied delusions of any kind.” (Id. at 264).

         Mr. Bruton then saw psychiatrist Vassili Arkadiev, M.D., from 2013 to 2015. (Id. at 262, 362). On June 5, 2013, Dr. Arkadiev reported that Mr. Bruton did not have a good mood and admitted to auditory hallucinations. (Id. 262). On June 10, 2013, Dr. Arkadiev provided a darker picture of Mr. Bruton:

hears a couple of voices telling him he is worthless. He still has ideas of persecution and thought insertion. The patient reports he has not been able to go out much. He spent the Fourth of July alone due to his paranoia. He lives alone. He doesn't have a lot of social support. The patient's manner is slightly guarded but more cooperative. Mood: “I don't have any feelings besides I feel worried.” He admits to auditory hallucinations and ideas of persecution and thought insertion.

(Id. at 280). He reiterated those findings on August 7, 2014. (Id. 371).

         Dr. Arkadiev saw marked improvement in Mr. Bruton on October 16, 2014. (See id. at 369). He noted that Mr. Bruton was “cooperative, friendly. He denies worthlessness. Attention and concentration are fair. He denies delusional ideas of persecution, thought insertion, thought withdrawal. He is alert and oriented times three.” (Id.).

         Two months later, on December 1, 2014, Dr. Arkadiev found Mr. Bruton's attention and concentration to be fair and long-term memory intact. (Id. at 367). Later that month, on December 30, 2014, Dr. Arkadiev noted that Mr. Bruton denied having any problems with motivation and also denied hallucinations. (Id. at 365). On January 27, 2015, Dr. Arkadiev found Mr. Bruton:

has some paranoid ideations, delusional ideas of mind reading . . . . Overall the patient says his psychotic symptoms are under control and don't disturb him as much. He doesn't have a lot of social interactions. He says he spent Christmas with his niece and spent the New Year at home. He has a financial friend who helps him out. . . . The patient's manner is cooperative, friendly. Mood: “I feel alright.” He is alert . . . .

(Id. at 362).

         Mr. Bruton filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on October 25, 2013. (Tr. 12). In his disability report, he listed the following five physical or mental conditions as limiting his ability to work: (1) “schizoaffective depressive [sic];” (2) depression; (3) “borderline functioning [sic];” (4) bipolar disorder; and, (5) pancreatitis. (Tr. 155). Mr. Bruton alleged his disability began on January 1, 2013. (Tr. 12).

         Mr. Bruton's claim was initially denied on February 7, 2014. (Id.). ALJ Randy Riley held a hearing on this claim on July 2, 2015, at which Mr. Bruton appeared and testified. (Id.).

         On August 7, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion finding Mr. Bruton was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id. at 12-21). The ALJ followed the five-step analysis for disability claims under the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ determined that Mr. Bruton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the time of his alleged onset of disability. (Id. at 14). At Step Two, the ALJ found Mr. Bruton had the following five severe impairments: (1) borderline intellectual functioning; (2) schizoaffective disorder; (3) cannabis abuse; (4) cocaine dependence; and, (5) alcohol dependence. (Id. at 14-15). At Step Three, he determined that Mr. Bruton's severe impairments did not meet or equal any of the listed impairments. (Id. at 15-16).

         Between Step 3 and Step 4, the ALJ found that, with his substance use, Mr. Bruton possessed the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, with the following non-exertional limitations:

work is limited to simple routine repetitive tasks in a work environment free from fast-paced production involving few, if any, workplace changes; no interaction with the public; and occasional interaction with coworkers.

(Id. at 16-19). At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Bruton was incapable of performing any past relevant work. (Id. at 19-20). At Step Five, the ALJ found Mr. Bruton was not disabled because there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform-namely, (1) general laborer and (2) machine feeder. (Id. at 20-21).

         The agency Appeals Council denied Mr. Bruton's request for review on September 27, 2016. (Id. at 1). On November 21, 2016, Mr. Bruton filed a complaint with this Court seeking review. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner filed her answer on January 26, 2017. (Doc. 10). This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for decision. (Doc. 12; Doc. 13).

         III. Legal Standards

         A. Substantial Evidence Review

         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. §405(g); 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). But 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 the plaintiff is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that the plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See Arnold 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 ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial evidence.”) (alterations omitted); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D. Pa. 1981) (“The Secretary's determination as to the status of a claim requires the correct application of the law to the facts.”); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d at 536 (“[T]he court has plenary review of all legal issues . . . .”).

         B. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for the ALJ

         To receive benefits under the Social Security Act by reason of disability, a 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§404.1505(a), 416.905(a). To satisfy this requirement, a 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 the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1505(a), 416.905(a). To receive benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that he or she contributed to the insurance program, is under retirement age, and became disabled prior to the date on which he or she was last insured. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131(a).

         In making this determination at the administrative level, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a). Under this process, the ALJ must sequentially determine: (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 a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant is able to do his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering his or her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4).

         Between Steps Three and Four, the ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC. RFC is defined as “that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s).” Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1). In making this assessment, the ALJ considers all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any non-severe impairment identified by the ALJ at Step Two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. §404.1545(a)(2).

         At Steps One through Four, the claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the existence of a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her in engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. §404.1512[2]; Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. At the same time, due process under the regulations requires the ALJ to fully and fairly develop the record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d-f), 404.1512; see also Law v. Barnhart, 439 F.Supp.2d 296, 305 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (“‘the ALJ, unlike a judge in a trial, must himself affirmatively develop the record' in light of ‘the essentially non-adversarial nature of a benefits proceeding.'”) (quoting Echevarria v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 685 F.2d 751, 755 (2d Cir. 1982)).

         At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in significant number in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §404.1512(f); Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.

         IV. Discussion

         Mr. Bruton advances the following two arguments on appeal:

(1) Whether Mr. Bruton has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal one of the ...

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