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Rathbun v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 12, 2018

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

          Conner Chief Judge.


          Susan E. Schwab Susan E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction.

         Plaintiff Heather Anne Rathbun (“Ms. Rathbun”), an adult individual who resides within the Middle District of Pennsylvania, seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is conferred on this Court pursuant to 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 Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons expressed herein, we recommend that the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Ms. Rathbun's claim be VACATED, and this case be REMANDED to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §405(g) to conduct a new administrative hearing.

         II. Statement of Facts and of the Case.

         The Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. 10-1 through Doc. 10-8.[2] Ms. Rathbun alleges she is disabled due to the following conditions: degenerative disc disease neck and low back, sacroiliac joint pain possible arthritis, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). Tr. at 122. Ms. Rathbun was born on January 18, 1965 and at the time of her alleged onset date, she was forty-seven years old and thus was considered a “younger individual.”[3] Id. at 119. Throughout the course of her disability claim, she subsequently changed age categories to closely approaching advanced age.[4] Id. at 22. Ms. Rathbun is an adult individual who resides within the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Id. at 121. Ms. Rathbun completed education through the tenth grade but did not graduate high school.[5] Id. at 31. Ms. Rathbun's past relevant work includes positions as a clerk, courier, and document control technician. Id. at 124.

         On February 6, 2014, Ms. Rathbun protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Id. at 108-109. On April 3, 2014, Ms. Rathbun's claims were denied at the initial level of administrative review. Id. at 61. In a letter denying her claim, the Social Security Administration explained they were unable to obtain sufficient evidence needed to evaluate her claim, and although they requested Ms. Rathbun to submit additional evidence, she did not do so. Id. Thereafter, she requested an administrative hearing. Id. at 65.

         A hearing was convened on July 20, 2015 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Daniel Myers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Ms. Rathbun appeared and testified with the assistance of her attorney. Impartial vocational expert Michael J. Kibler (“VE Kibler”) also appeared and testified. Ms. Rathbun reported that she stopped working at her last position because she was a contractor and the company was “bringing in new people.” Id. at 32. She testified that she tried to find a job thereafter but unfortunately she “can't really find a job anymore, ” and she “can't really do a job anymore.” Id. Ms. Rathbun reported that she cannot sit or stand without pain. Id. She testified that she has to move every few minutes because of pain in both of her legs and her lower back. Id. at 32-33. Ms. Rathbun testified that she cannot sit or stand for longer than ten minutes before pain becomes a problem. Id. at 32. She reported that her doctor restricted her to not lifting anything over ten pounds, but that she usually does not lift anything over five pounds. Id. at 37. Although Ms. Rathbun does have a valid driver's license, she testified that she has trouble driving for long periods of time because she has to move around too much. Id. at 39.

         On August 5, 2015, the ALJ denied Ms. Rathbun's claims in a written decision. Id. at 14-23. Following the ALJ's adverse decision, Ms. Rathbun requested further review of her claim by the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (“Appeals Council”). Id. at 9-10. Together with her request, Ms. Rathbun submitted a Brief in Support of her Request for Review of the Hearing Decision/Order. Id. at 149-153. On December 19, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Rathbun's request for review, making the ALJ's August 2015 decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court. Id. at 1-3.

         Ms. Rathbun initiated this action by filing a complaint on February 17, 2017. Doc. 1. In her complaint, Ms. Rathbun alleges that the conclusions and findings of fact of the Commissioner are not supported by substantial evidence and are contrary to the applicable law and regulations. Id. As relief, she requests that this Court reverse and set aside the Commissioner's final decision or remand for further proceedings consistent with the regulations. Id. On May 1, 2017, the Commissioner filed her answer. Doc. 9. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is correct and in accordance with the applicable law and regulations, and that the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Id. Together with her answer, the Commissioner filed a certified transcript of the record of the administrative proceedings in this case. Doc. 10. This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for decision. Doc. 11; Doc. 14; Doc. 15.

         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); 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 Ms. Rathbun 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 Secretary'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); 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 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).

         In making this determination at the administrative level, 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. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4).

         Between Steps Three and Four, the ALJ must also 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). 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 in engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. ...

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