United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. SCHWAB, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Leida Iturralde (“Iturralde”) asserts that she
has been disabled and unable to work since June 16, 2011, due
to a number of conditions, including thyroid issues, high
blood pressure, carpal tunnel, numbness in arms and hands,
right wrist surgery, and right shoulder issues. She brought
this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and 42 U.S.C.
§1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final decision of
defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“the
Commissioner”), who denied Iturralde's claim for
disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security
Act. For the reasons explained below, we recommend that the
final decision of the Commissioner denying Iturralde's
claims be AFFIRMED.
Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner.
See Doc. #10-1 through Doc.
#10-15. Iturralde protectively filed a Title II
application for disability insurance benefits on January 2,
2013, alleging June 16, 2011 as the beginning date of
disability. Tr. 12. Iturralde's claim was
initially denied on July 31, 2013. Id. ALJ Daniel
Myers, held a hearing for Iturralde's claim on November
7, 2014, at which Iturralde appeared and testified.
Id. ALJ Myers denied Iturralde's claims and
found her to be not disabled in a written decision on January
8, 2015. Id. at 22. Iturralde filed a timely request
for review of ALJ Myer's decision with the Appeals
Council, and it was denied June 21, 2016. Id. at 1.
On December 18, 2016, Iturralde filed this federal action
which 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. Doc. 11.
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 the findings of
the final decision-maker are supported by substantial
evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g);
42 U.S.C. §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). 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). The question before
this Court, therefore, is not whether Iturralde is disabled,
but whether the Commissioner's finding that she 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 [commissioner]'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 the
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 also 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).
making this determination at the administrative level, 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 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), 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 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
this burden has been met by the claimant, it shifts to the
Commissioner at step five 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.
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 this disability
determination. Thus, in order to facilitate review of the
decision under the substantial evidence standard, the
ALJ's decision must be accompanied by "a clear and
satisfactory explication of the basis on which it
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 addition, “[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., 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).
decision dated January 8, 2015, the ALJ held that Iturralde
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act. Tr. 22. At step one, the ALJ determined that
Iturralde had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since June 16, 2011, the alleged onset date. Id. at
14. At step two, the ALJ found that Iturralde suffered from
the following severe impairments: (1) major depressive
disorder, (2) panic disorder with agoraphobia, (3) right
wrist injury status post-surgery, and (4) cervical
degenerative disc disease. Id.
three, the ALJ determined that Iturralde did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Id. at 15. In particular, the ALJ considered
listings 1.02B, 1.04A, 1.04B, 12.04, and 12.06, and concluded
that Iturralde's impairments did not meet the criteria of
these listings. Id.
four, the ALJ found that Iturralde had “the residual
functional capacity to perform light work as defined in
20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) except she requires no use of
the dominant right upper extremity; no ladders; no crawling;
and must avoid hazards including machinery that moves about
on the job site floor.” Id. at 16-17. The ALJ
determined that Iturralde “must avoid temperature
extremes and vibrations, and is limited to routine,
repetitive work in a stable environment.” Id.
at 17. In making this finding, the ALJ gave significant
weight to an opinion by consultative medical examiner Dr.
Viral Patel (“Dr. Patel”) concerning
Iturralde's inability to use her right upper extremity,
and the opinion of a state agency psychological consultant
Dr. John Gavazzi (“Dr. Gavazzi”) finding
Iturralde capable of simple, routine, repetitive work in a
stable environment. Id. at 20, 21. Little weight was
given to treating physician Dr. William Rolle's
(“Dr. Rolle”) opinion finding Iturralde unable to
work because the opinion was “not supported by the
longitudinal medical findings, [Iturralde's] improvement
with surgery and treatment, her activities of daily living
and her ability and desire to travel.” Id. at
formulating the RFC, the ALJ also “considered all
symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can
reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective
medical evidence and other evidence” in accordance with
20 C.F.R. 404.1529 and SSRs 96-4p and 96-7p. Id. The
ALJ also considered the opinion evidence in accordance with
20 C.F.R. 404.1527 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p, and 06-3p.
Id. The ALJ found Iturralde's “medically
determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to
cause the alleged symptoms; however, [Iturralde's]
statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting
effects of these symptoms [were] not entirely
credible.” Id. at 18. The ALJ drew this
conclusion because of various inconsistencies between
Iturralde's testimony and her medical records.
Id. at 18-21.
step four, the ALJ concluded that Iturralde was unable to
perform any of her past relevant work as a cashier II,
general merchandise salesperson, store laborer, or general
clerk and material handler. Id. at 21. At step five,
after considering Iturralde's age, education, work
experience and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that Iturralde could perform. Id. This finding
relied on the testimony of vocational expert Michael J.
Kibler (“the VE”). Id. at 22. The VE
testified at the administrative hearing that an individual
with Iturralde's RFC and limitations, as determined by
the ALJ, could perform the requirements of representative
occupations such as a ...