United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Schwab Susan E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate
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).
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
Statement of Facts and of the Case.
Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner.
See Doc. 10-1 through Doc.
10-8. 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.” Id. at 119.
Throughout the course of her disability claim, she
subsequently changed age categories to closely approaching
advanced age. 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. Id. at 31. Ms. Rathbun's past
relevant work includes positions as a clerk, courier, and
document control technician. Id. at 124.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of This
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 . . . .”).
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). 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
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).
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).
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. ...