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Aitkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 15, 2018

DANIEL AITKINS, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1]ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY Defendant.

          Munley Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Susan E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction.

         The plaintiff Daniel Aitkins, Jr. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. We have jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         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 Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). Because the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is not supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court VACATE the final decision of the Commissioner denying Mr. Aitkins's claims and REMAND the case to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Procedural History.

         The Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. 10-1 through Doc. 10-9.[2] On January 22, 2014, Mr. Aitkins filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and an application for Supplemental Security Income contending that he became disabled on October 1, 2012. Admin. Tr. at 133-44. After the Commissioner denied Mr. Aitkins's claims at the initial level of administrative review, Mr. Aitkins requested an administrative hearing. Id. at 89- 90. On June 26, 2015, with the assistance of counsel, he testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Scott M. Staller. Id. at 26-53.

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Aitkins was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from October 1, 2012, through the date of his decision on August 12, 2015, and so he denied Mr. Aitkins's applications for benefits. Id. at 8-25. Mr. Aitkins appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Counsel, which denied his request for review on September 27, 2016. Id. at 1-6. This makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court.

         In October of 2016, Mr. Aitkins initiated this action by filing a complaint claiming that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and contains errors of law. Doc. 1 at 3. He requests that the Court reverse the ALJ's decision and award him benefits or, in the alternative, remand the case to the Commissioner for a new hearing. Id. The Commissioner filed an answer and a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings. Docs.9, 10. The parties have filed briefs, and this matter is ripe for decision. Docs. 11-13.

         III. Legal Standards.

         A. Substantial Evidence Review-the Role of This Court.

         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 substantial evidence supports the findings of the final decision-maker. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); 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) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). 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] finding 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 Mr. Aitkins was disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that he was not disabled and the Commissioner correctly applied 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); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary).

         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), 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), 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         To receive disability insurance 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).[3] Unlike with disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, “[i]nsured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant's eligibility for supplemental security income benefits” under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Snyder v. Colvin, No. 3:16-CV-01689, 2017 WL 1078330, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 22, 2017). Supplemental Security Income “is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes)” “designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income.” Id.

         In determining whether the claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(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), 416.920(a)(4).

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC. RFC is “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. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1), 416.920(e), 416.945(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), 416.945(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 from engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(5), 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5) by reference); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912;[4] Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant number in the national economy that the claimant could perform and that are consistent with the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(f), 416.912(f); Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.

         The ALJ's disability determination must also meet certain basic substantive requisites. Most significant among these legal benchmarks is a requirement that the ALJ adequately explain the legal and factual basis for the disability determination. Thus, in order to facilitate review of the decision under the substantial evidence standard, the ALJ's decision must provide “a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which” his or her decision rests. Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981). Conflicts in the evidence must be resolved, and the ALJ must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Id. at 706-707. In other words, “[t]he ALJ must indicate in his decision which evidence he has rejected and which he is relying on as the basis for his finding.” Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).

         IV. The ALJ's Decision Denying Mr. Aitkins's Claims.

         On August 12, 2015, the ALJ denied Mr. Aitkins's claims for benefits.

         Applying the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Mr. Aitkins was not disabled within the ...


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