United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK United States Magistrate Judge.
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
Background & Procedural History
December 17, 2015, Ms. Newman protectively filed applications
for benefits under Title II and Part A of Title XVIII of the
Social Security Act,  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
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).
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).
Standard of Review
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 that makes it impossible to do his or her
previous work or any other substantial gainful
activity 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.
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) whether the claimant is able
to do past relevant work, considering his or her residual
functional capacity (“RFC”); 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).
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
The ALJ's Decision
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.
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).
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).
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).
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 Jay Willner, M.D.
(“Dr. Willner”) (Doc. 12-2, at 26); treating
psychiatrist Sharon Cline, M.D. (“Dr.
Cline”) (Doc. 12-2, at 26); and
non-examining 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).
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).
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