United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
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).
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).
Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner.
See Doc. 10-1 through Doc. 10-9. 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.
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.
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-
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); 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
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. § 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).
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. §
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. §
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).
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; 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.
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 Mr. Wheeler's
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.
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.
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,  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.”
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.
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 ...