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Bonner v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 27, 2018

CRISTINA LYNN BONNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1] ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY Defendant.

          Judge, Brann

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          SUSAN E. SCHWAB, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. Introduction.

         The 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).

         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 supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying Ms. Bonner's claim.

         II. Procedural History.

         The Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. 9-1 through Doc. 9-9.[2] 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         In 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.

         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 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).

         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. § 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).

         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. § 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. §§ 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. § 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5) by reference); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912;[3] 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.

         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 Ms. Bonner's Claim.

         On July 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.

         At step 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.

         At step 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 14-15.

         At step 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.

         Between 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.

         At step 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.

         At step 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. at 22-23.

         In sum, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Bonner has not been disabled since September 12, 2013, the date of her application for benefits. Id. at 23.

         V. Discussion.

         Ms. 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.

         A. The ALJ did not err by failing to give proper weight to the testimony of Ms. Bonner and her father.

         Ms. Bonner claims that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to her testimony and the testimony of her father.[4] 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 ...

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