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Meadows v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 28, 2018

RALPH MEADOWS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

          Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge.

         SYNOPSIS

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 12 and 16]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 13 and 17]. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 16] and granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 12].

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. On or about February 8, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB, and, on or about December 7, 2012, he applied for SSI. [ECF No. 8-2, at 11; ECF No. 8-5 (Exs. 5D-8D)]. Plaintiff alleged that he had been disabled since February 15, 2012, due to lumbar bulging discs L5-6 without myelopathy, varicocele cervicalgia, arthritis in cervical spine, numbness/tingling in left hand, carpal tunnel, migraines, depression, anxiety, PTSD, hypertension, and vitiligo. [ECF No. 8-3 (Exs. 8A, 10A); ECF No. 8-5 (Exs. 5D-8D)]. His date last insured was June 30, 2014. [ECF No. 8-2, at 14 (citing Ex. 12D)]. The state agency denied his claims initially, and he requested an administrative hearing. [ECF No. 8]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Joanna Papazekos held a hearing on September 10, 2014, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [ECF No. 8-2, at 37-62]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. A vocational expert (“VE”), also was present at the hearing, but did not testify. Id. at 37-39. At the hearing, the ALJ admitted record exhibits 1A-21F into evidence and continued the hearing to obtain a consultative examination. Id. at 58-62. After proffer to Plaintiff's representative without objection, a Psychiatric and Intelligence Evaluation dated February 2, 2015, from consultative examiner, Steven Pacella, Ph.D., was marked as Ex. 23F. [ECF No. 8-2, at 11 (citing Exs. 13E, 23F)]. In addition, Plaintiff's representative submitted a treatment note dated September 3, 2014 from Dr. John Uribe, UPMC Comprehensive Care Associates. Id. (citing Ex. 22F). On March 13, 2015, the ALJ proffered interrogatories to the VE who had been present at the hearing. Id. (citing Exs. 14E, 12B). The VE submitted responses to the interrogatory requests, and the responses were proffered to Plaintiff's representative without written objection, comment, statement, or questions. Id. (citing Exs. 15E, 16E).

         In a decision dated May 21, 2015, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. [ECF No. 8-2, at 11-30]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on December 12, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. [ECF No. 8-2, at 1-3]. Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 12 and 16]. The issues are now ripe for my review.

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

         The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.

         A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

         B. WHETHER THE ALJ IMPROPERLY REJECTED THE DIAGNOSIS OF ...


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