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Little v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 20, 2018

MICHAEL LITTLE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Alan N. Bloch, United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 20th day of March, 2018, upon consideration of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13), filed in the above-captioned matter on September 11, 2017, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED.

         AND, further, upon consideration of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11), filed in the above-captioned matter on August 10, 2017, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Specifically, Plaintiff's Motion is granted to the extent that is seeks remand to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further evaluation as set forth below, and denied in all other respects. Accordingly, this matter is hereby remanded to the Commissioner for further evaluation under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in light of this Order.

         I. Background

         On September 5, 2012, Plaintiff Michael Little protectively filed a claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that he became disabled on August 13, 2012, due to back problems, knee and hip problems, depression, anxiety, and trouble concentrating. (R. 126-27, 155).

         After being denied initially on December 7, 2012, Plaintiff sought, and obtained, a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 26, 2013. (R. 42-59, 80-84). In a decision dated November 1, 2013, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (R. 16-34). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on February 13, 2015. (R. 1-5).

         Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court objecting to the final decision of the Commissioner, and the Court remanded Plaintiff's claim for further evaluation due to an inaudible portion of the hearing transcript. On remand, on November 29, 2016, a new hearing was held before a different ALJ. (R. 406-39). On December 30, 2016, the ALJ again denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (R. 387-405). Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with this Court, and the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of a social security case is based upon the pleadings and the transcript of the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact. See Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 592 (3d Cir. 2001) (noting that “‘[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive'” (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g))); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999) (stating that the court has plenary review of all legal issues, and reviews the ALJ's findings of fact to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence).

         “Substantial evidence” is defined as “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate'” to support a conclusion. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)). However, a “‘single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [Commissioner] ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence.'” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “‘Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence- particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)-or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion.'” Id.

         A disability is established when the claimant can demonstrate some medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001). “A claimant is considered unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity ‘only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . .'” Id. at 39 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

         The Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability as defined by the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In Step One, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the disability claim will be denied. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If not, the second step of the process is to determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). “An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522. If the claimant fails to show that his or her impairments are “severe, " he or she is ineligible for disability benefits. If the claimant does have a severe impairment, however, the Commissioner must proceed to Step Three and determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria for a listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant meets a listing, a finding of disability is automatically directed. If the claimant does not meet a listing, the analysis proceeds to Steps Four and Five.

         Step Four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), and the claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to this past relevant work, see Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume his or her former occupation, the evaluation then moves to the fifth and final step.

         At this stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing other available work in the national economy in order to deny a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ should consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. See Id. The ALJ must further analyze the cumulative effect of all the ...


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