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Wheeler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 8, 2018

ALBERT EDWARD WHEELER, III Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1] ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY Defendant.

          Conner Chief Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Susan E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction.

         The plaintiff Albert Edward Wheeler, III seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. We have jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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 not supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court VACATE the decision of the Commissioner denying Mr. Wheeler's claim and REMAND the case to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Procedural History.

         The Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. 10-1 through Doc. 10-9.[2] In August of 2013, Mr. Wheeler filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits contending that he became disabled on July 26, 2013. Admin. Tr. at 116-18. After the Commissioner denied Mr. Wheeler's claim at the initial level of administrative review, Mr. Wheeler requested an administrative hearing. Id. at 101-02. On February 25, 2015, with the assistance of counsel, he testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Michele Stolls. Id. at 31-64.

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Wheeler was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from July 26, 2013, through the date of her decision on April 1, 2015, and so she denied Mr. Wheeler's application for benefits. Id. at 13- 30. Mr. Wheeler appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Counsel, which denied his request for review on August 3, 2016. Id. at 1-6. This makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court.

         In September of 2016, Mr. Wheeler initiated this action by filing a complaint claiming that the ALJ applied improper legal standards and that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 1 at 2-3. He requests that the Court reverse the ALJ's decision and award him benefits. Id. at 3. 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- 12.

         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); 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. Wheeler 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 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. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         To 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).[3]

         In determining whether the claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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).

         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. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(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).

         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. § 423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512;[4] 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); 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 Mr. Wheeler's Claim.

         On April 1, 2015, the ALJ denied Mr. Wheeler's claim for benefits. Applying the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Mr. Wheeler was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         At step one of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Wheeler had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of July 26, 2013. Admin. Tr. at 18.

         At step two of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Wheeler had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, [5] degenerative joint disease of the left knee (status post-surgery), and degenerative joint disease of the right knee (with history of grade 1 strain injury). Id. She also determined that Mr. Wheeler had the non-severe impairments of hypertension, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, and a self- reported history of special education. Id. at 18-19. Further, the ALJ noted that although Mr. Wheeler had listed MRSA as an impairment, at the hearing, “he indicated it was years prior to his alleged onset [date] with no treatment found in the [relevant] period.” Id. at 19. As such, the ALJ concluded that MRSA was “not a medically determinable impairment relative to this application.” Id.

         At step three of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Wheeler 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 19-20. More specifically, the ALJ discussed Listings 1.02 and 1.04, and determined that Mr. Wheeler did not meet those Listings. Id.

         Between steps three and four of the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ assessed Mr. Wheeler's RFC. In making this RFC assessment, the ALJ reviewed the medical evidence regarding Mr. Wheeler's knee impairments:

In terms of the claimant's knees, the diagnostic testing, clinical findings and treatment history show some limitations regarding the claimant's knees, but not to the extent alleged by the claimant. X-rays of the left and right knees dated January 3, 2013 showed no evidence of acute fracture, joint effusion or significant degenerative changes, and indicated the claimant had anatomic alignment of the knee, normal mineralization and unremarkable findings regarding the soft tissues. However, a[n] MRI of the left knee dated July 9, 2013 showed several abnormalities. The treatment records show the claimant had a history of left knee pain and treatment for the same, which predated the alleged onset ...

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