United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. SCHWAB, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
plaintiff Cristina Lynn Bonner seeks judicial review of the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her claim for
Supplemental Security Income under Titles XVI of the Social
Security Act. We have jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
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 supported by
substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court affirm the
decision of the Commissioner denying Ms. Bonner's claim.
Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner.
See Doc. 9-1 through Doc.
9-9. Ms. Bonner filed an application for
Supplemental Security Income contending that she became
disabled on October 30, 2010. Admin. Tr. at 110-16.
After the Commissioner denied Ms. Bonner's claim at the
initial level of administrative review, Ms. Bonner requested
an administrative hearing. Id. at 97- 99. On May 21,
2015, with the assistance of counsel, she testified at a
hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) James Linehan.
Id. at 47-82.
determined that Ms. Bonner has not been disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act since September 12, 2013,
the date of her application, and so he denied Ms.
Bonner's application for benefits. Id. at 9-26.
Ms. Bonner appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals
Counsel, which denied her request for review on November 4,
2016. Id. at 1-5. This makes the ALJ's decision
the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial
review by this Court.
November of 2016, Ms. Bonner initiated this action by filing
a complaint claiming that the ALJ applied improper legal
standards and that his decision is not supported by
substantial evidence. Doc. 1 at 1. She requests that
the Court reverse the ALJ's decision and award her
benefits. Id. at 2. The Commissioner filed an answer
and a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings.
Docs. 8, 9. The parties have filed briefs, and this
matter is ripe for decision. Docs. 12-13.
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 Ms. Bonner was
disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's finding that she 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).
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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A);
see also 20 C.F.R. § 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. §
1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).
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.”
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. § 416.920(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. §§
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. §
1382c(a)(3)(H)(i) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)
by reference); 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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 Ms. Bonner's
30, 2015, the ALJ denied Ms. Bonner's claim for benefits.
Applying the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Bonner was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act.
one of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ found that
Ms. Bonner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since September 12, 2013, the date of her application for
benefits. Admin. Tr. at 14.
two of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ found that
Ms. Bonner had the following severe impairment: degenerative
disc disease of the lumbar spine status post laminectomy.
Id. Ms. Bonner had three surgeries on her back: the
first one in December of 2010, the second one in March of
2011, and the third one in March of 2013. Id. at
three of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ found
that Ms. Bonner did not have any impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment
listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Id. at 16. More specifically, the ALJ discussed
Listing 1.04. Id. at 17.
steps three and four of the sequential-evaluation process,
the ALJ assessed Ms. Bonner's RFC. The ALJ found that Ms.
Bonner had the RFC to perform sedentary work except she
“can lift and carry 10 pounds”; “[s]he can
sit, stand and walk alternatively for a total of 3 hours each
activity in an 8-hour workday”; and she “must
alternate position at will.” The ALJ also found that
“[s]he can occasionally bend, crouch, kneel and reach
overhead”; that she “has unlimited use of hands
for grasping, holding and turning objects”; and that
she “cannot climb ropes, ladders, scaffolds, push or
pull with [her] upper extremities, crawl or use [her] feet
for foot controls.” Id. at 17.
four of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ found that
given Ms. Bonner's RFC, she was not capable of performing
her past relevant work as a cashier, teacher's aide, or
taxi driver. Id. at 22.
five, considering Ms. Bonner's age, education, work
experience, and RFC, as well as the testimony of a vocational
expert, the ALJ found that there were other jobs-such as
“assembler small parts, ” video monitor, and
information clerk-that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that Ms. Bonner could perform. Id.
the ALJ concluded that Ms. Bonner has not been disabled since
September 12, 2013, the date of her application for benefits.
Id. at 23.
Bonner claims that the ALJ erred in failing to give proper
weight to her testimony and the testimony of her father, that
the ALJ erred in not accepting her treating
neurosurgeon's opinion with respect to her ability to
work, and that the ALJ erred in determining her RFC.
The ALJ did not err by failing to give proper weight to the
testimony of Ms. Bonner and her father.
Bonner claims that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to
her testimony and the testimony of her father. In making his RFC
assessment, the ALJ reviewed the testimony of Ms. Bonner and
her father from the administrative hearing:
At the hearing, the claimant testified that she is divorced
with two children ages 9 and 13. She received unemployment
benefits until January 2011 but they terminated because there
was no work available for her; she received a Worker's
Compensation settlement. The claimant has a driver's
license and she drives. Her boyfriend lives with her too, he
works during the day. The claimant had three surgeries on her
lower back but she continues to experience radiating pain
daily. She is fatigued during the day. Standing and sitting
long bother her. Lying down reduces the pain. She takes
Sertraline at night to help her sleep. She was in pain
management but it did not work. She sees her physician yearly
for medication refills. She smokes a half pack per day. She
can walk up to a mile; stand for 30 minutes; sit for 30
minutes and carry five pounds. She has no problems using her
arms in front. She cannot use foot controls. The claimant was
told if anything else goes wrong with her back, rods would
have to be placed.
At the hearing, Mr. Bonner testified that he sees the
claimant one to two times per week. Her condition is getting
worse and medications are not effective on most days.
Basically, the claimant is sedentary and she used to be
active. She is in pain if trying to lift things of any
weight. She has to change positions constantly. When she
comes to the house, she stands for short periods, sits and
leans over. He has gone to a few doctor's appointments
with her and was told she will have this condition for the
rest of her life; there is nothing he can recommend to change
it. Physical therapy and pain ...