United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
NEIL C. BRUTON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILLActing Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
F. SAPORITO, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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
Background and Procedural History
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).
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
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).
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).
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).
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
(Id. at 280). He reiterated those findings on August
7, 2014. (Id. 371).
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.).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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).
Substantial Evidence Review
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).
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 . . . .”).
Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for
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. §
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.
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).
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; 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.
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.
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 ...