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Iturralde v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 1, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          Chief Judge, Conner



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff 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.

         II. Background

         The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #10-1 through Doc. #10-15.[2] 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.

         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 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 . . . .”).

         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); 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[3] that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity[4] 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).

         In 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;[5] (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).

         Between 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. §§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 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 1064.

         Once 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.

         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 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).

         IV. ALJ Decision

         In his 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.

         At step 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.

         At step 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 20.

         In 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.

         Also at 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 ...

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