United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
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
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).
Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner.
See Doc. 10-1 through Doc.
10-9. 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.
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.
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.
Substantial Evidence Review-the Role of This Court.
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
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), 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),
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). 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.
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),
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. §§
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; 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.
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).
The ALJ's Decision Denying Mr. Aitkins's
August 12, 2015, the ALJ denied Mr. Aitkins's claims for
the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ determined that
Mr. Aitkins was not disabled within the ...