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Newman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 21, 2018

TINA NEWMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is an action brought under Section § 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Tina Newman's (“Ms. Newman”) claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge on consent of the parties, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons expressed herein, and upon detailed consideration of the arguments raised by the parties in their respective briefs, it is ordered that the Commissioner's decision be VACATED and this case REMANDED to conduct a new administrative hearing.

         I. Background & Procedural History

         On December 17, 2015, Ms. Newman protectively filed applications for benefits under Title II and Part A of Title XVIII of the Social Security Act, [1] asserting an onset date of March 6, 2014 at which time Ms. Newman was forty-five (45) years old. (Doc. 12-5, at 3). Ms. Newman alleged that she became disabled due to a combination of vertigo, high blood pressure, asthma, bronchitis, allergies, depression, and anemia. (Doc. 12-6, at 5).

         On March 10, 2016, Ms. Newman's claims were denied at the initial level of administrative review. (Doc. 12-4, at 4). Ms. Newman filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on March 22, 2016 (Doc. 12-4, at 9), and appeared with her attorney and testified at an administrative hearing before ALJ Frank Barletta on September 26, 2016. (Doc. 12-2, at 59-90). Impartial vocational expert (“VE”) Gerald Keating also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Doc. 12-2, at 81-89). The ALJ denied Ms. Newman's claims in a written decision dated October 3, 2016, in which the ALJ concluded that while Ms. Newman was unable to perform any past relevant work, she was capable of performing light exertional work. (Doc. 12-2, at 24-28). On November 21, 2016, Ms. Newman requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. (Doc. 12-2, at 11-13). The Appeals Council denied her request for review on December 2, 2016 thus affirming the ALJ's October of 2016 decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court. (Doc. 12-2, at 2-5).

         Ms. Newman initiated this action by filing a complaint through her counsel of record, received and filed by the Court on January 1, 2017. (Doc. 1). In her complaint, Ms. Newman alleges that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record and was contrary to law and regulation. (Doc. 1, at 2). Ms. Newman requests that this Court remand the case for a further administrative hearing and award attorney's fees. (Doc. 1, at 2). After service of the complaint, the Commissioner filed an answer together with a certified transcript of the entire record of the administrative proceedings on April 4, 2017. (Doc. 11; Doc. 12). In her answer, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ's decision was made in accordance with the law and regulations and that the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 11, at 3, ¶8). This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is now ripe for decision. (Doc. 16; Doc. 20; Doc. 21).

         II. Standard of Review

         In order to receive benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To satisfy this requirement, a claimant must have a severe physical or mental impairment[2] that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity[3] that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Additionally, to be eligible to receive benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must be insured for disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131.

         In evaluating whether a claimant is disabled as defined in the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence: (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] (4) whether the claimant is able to do past relevant work, considering his or her residual functional capacity (“RFC”);[5] and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a) (effective Apr. 20, 2015, through Mar. 26, 2017). Once the claimant has established at step four that he or she cannot do past relevant work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with his or her RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(f) (effective Apr. 20, 2015, through Mar. 26, 2017).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a claimant's application for benefits, the Court is limited to determining whether the findings of the final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by reference); 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) (internal quotations omitted). 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). In an adequately developed factual record, however, 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 the Court, therefore, is not whether Ms. Newman is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled was 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. II, 2014) (“[I]t has been held that an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial evidence.”); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D. Pa. 1981) (“The [Commissioner]'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 decided by the Commissioner.”).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In his May 2015 decision, the ALJ found Ms. Newman was not disabled and thus declined her application for benefits. (Doc. 9-2, at 21). The ALJ assessed Ms. Newman's case through the five-step sequential evaluation required by the Social Security Act. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found that Ms. Newman met the insured status requirement of Title II of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2020. (Doc. 12-2, at 20). Proceeding to step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ next found that Ms. Newman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the March 6, 2014 onset date. (Doc. 12-2, at 21).

         At step two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence of record established the presence of the following medically determinable severe impairments during the relevant period: asthma; anemia; obesity; hypertension; depression; and an anxiety disorder. (Doc. 12-2, at 21). The ALJ found that the combination of these impairments caused “more than a minimal functional limitation” in Ms. Newman's ability to perform basic work functions, and was thus considered to be severe. (Doc. 12-2, at 21). The ALJ further recognized that Ms. Newman's medical history included hyperlipidemia, bronchitis, and vertigo, however determined these impairments were non-severe. (Doc. 12-2, at 21).

         At step three, the ALJ found that during the relevant period, Ms. Newman did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment in the version of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 that was in effect when the ALJ issued his decision. (Doc. 12-2, at 21). First, the ALJ determined that Ms. Newman's impairments did not meet the listings in Section 3.03 for asthma, because the record did not show that she suffered from asthma with chronic asthmatic bronchitis as outlined under Section 3.02A, or from asthma with attacks, as defined in Section 3.00C, that occurred at least once every two (2) months. (Doc. 12-2, at 21). The ALJ also considered the hematological listings in Section 7.00, but found that the record did not reveal Ms. Newman's anemia achieved the necessary level of severity. (Doc. 12-2, at 21). Next the ALJ considered listing 4.00 for Ms. Newman's hypertension, and evaluated her condition in the context of the other body systems it affected (namely her heart, brain, kidneys or eyes). (Doc. 12-2, at 22). Although the ALJ noted Ms. Newman's hypertension was severe, he concluded that it did not meet the requirements for severity under the listing. (Doc. 12-2, at 22). The ALJ additionally evaluated Ms. Newman's obesity under several listings, and in conjunction with any related musculoskeletal, respiratory, or cardiovascular conditions she had. (Doc. 12-2, at 22). However, after considering both the singular or cumulative effects of Ms. Newman's obesity, the ALJ determined that she did not meet the criteria of a listing. (Doc. 12-2, at 22). Finally, the ALJ considered section 12.00 of the listings for Ms. Newman's mental health impairments, however found that she did not meet their requirements of 12.04 or 12.06 based on her medical records. (Doc. 12-2, at 22-24).

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ assessed Ms. Newman's RFC. (Doc. 12-2, at 24). Ms. Newman alleged that her impairments caused the following symptoms: fatigue, high blood pressure, dizziness, shortness of breath, depression, difficulty with lifting, difficulty with interacting with others, a preference for isolation, and neglect of household responsibilities. (Doc. 12-2, at 25). After examining her statements and the medical evidence, the ALJ found that Ms. Newman's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that her statements about the intensity, persistence, and the limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely credible. (Doc. 12-2, at 25). The ALJ then went on to detail Ms. Newman's medical records and treatment history. (Doc. 12-2, at 25-27). In doing so, the ALJ considered and weighed medical opinions by the following sources: non-treating physician[6] Jay Willner, M.D. (“Dr. Willner”) (Doc. 12-2, at 26); treating psychiatrist[7] Sharon Cline, M.D. (“Dr. Cline”) (Doc. 12-2, at 26); and non-examining[8] state agency psychological consultant Anthony Galdieri, Ph.D. (“Dr. Galdieri”) (Doc. 12-2, at 26-27). The ALJ also considered Ms. Newman's Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores that were rendered over the course of her treatment, and gave them little weight. (Doc. 12-2, at 26).

         Dr. Willner completed a consultative examination of Ms. Newman on March 3, 2016. (Doc. 12-7, at 50-59). In his report, Dr. Willner noted that Ms. Newman had a fair prognosis, and could continuously lift and carry up to 10, 20, 50, and 100 pounds (Doc. 12-7, at 53-54). Dr. Willner further noted that Ms. Newman did not require the use of a cane to ambulate, and could sit, stand, and walk for 8 hours without interruption, and for 8 hours total in a work day. (Doc. 12-7, at 55). Dr. Willner did not note any limitations with Ms. Newman's use of her hands or feet (Doc. 12-7, at 56), however found that, due to her vertigo, she could never climb ladders or scaffolds or balance, and could occasionally climb stairs and ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. (Doc. 12-7, at 57). Dr. Willner further opined that due to Ms. Newman's vertigo and asthma, she experienced the following environmental limitations: that she could never be exposed to unprotected heights, humidity and wetness, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants, extreme cold, or extreme heat; that she could occasionally be exposed to moving mechanical parts; that she could frequently be exposed to operating a motor vehicle and vibrations; and that she could tolerate loud noises. (Doc. 12-7, at 58). The ALJ afforded this evaluation little weight, as it was inconsistent with the medical evidence in the record and examination findings. (Doc. 12-2, at 26). The ALJ additionally noted that Dr. Willner was not Ms. Newman's treating physician, and that he generally underestimated Ms. Newman's ongoing limitations. (Doc. 12-2, at 26).

         The ALJ also considered the opinion of treating physician Dr. Cline, who evaluated Ms. Newman and completed a medical source statement on July 25, 2016. In her report, Dr. Cline found that Ms. Newman had lifting and carrying limitations, and could occasionally lift 0-5 pounds and 10-20 pounds, but could never lift 10-20 pounds or 20-50 pounds. (Doc. 12-8, at 41). Dr. Cline also noted that Ms. Newman could stand and walk for a total of 1 hour in an 8 hour work day, and could sit for a total of 5 hours in an 8 hour work day. (Doc. 12-8, at 41). Further, Dr. Cline indicated that Ms. Newman had limitations with postural activities such that she could never climb, bend, balance, stoop, crouch, or crawl, but could occasionally kneel. Ms. Newman also had manipulative limitations such that she could never reach, but could frequently feel and handle and occasionally push and pull. (Doc. 12-8, at 42). Dr. Cline additionally opined that Ms. Newman experienced environmental limitations when exposed to extreme temperatures, chemicals, dust, fumes and humidity. (Doc. 12-8, at 42). However, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Newman's limited treatment history did not support the extreme limitations found by Dr. Cline. (Doc. 12-2, at 26). Specifically, the ALJ noted that Ms. Newman's physical examination findings were relatively normal throughout her ...

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