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Swartzbaugh v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 30, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] Defendant.

          MARIANI, J.



         The plaintiff, Mark A. Swartzbaugh brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), and, as incorporated by reference, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying claim for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”).

         This 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)(1)(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 be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural Background

         Swartzbaugh is an adult individual born May 14, 1965. He was forty-six years old at the time of the alleged onset of disability-August 1, 2011. (Tr. 18).

         Swartzbaugh's age at the onset date makes him a “younger person” under the Commissioner's regulations whose age generally does not affect his ability to adjust to other work. See 20 C.F.R. §416.963.

         On July 15, 2013, Swartzbaugh protectively filed an application for benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act alleging disability as of August 1, 2011. In his application, Swartzbaugh alleged that the following impairments prevent him from engaging in any work: fibromyalgia, lack of mental concentration, fatigue, brain fog, difficulty to concentrate on tasks, joint pain, headaches and depression. (Tr. 178).

         Swartzbaugh's claim was initially denied on October 11, 2013. Thereafter, he filed a timely request for an administrative hearing. His request was granted. Swartzbaugh appeared in York, PA at the hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Reana K. Sweeney who presided over the hearing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on December 11, 2014. At the hearing, Swartzbaugh represented himself. Swartzbaugh appeared at a supplemental hearing held on February 19, 2015. In addition, impartial vocational expert Brian Bierley (“VE”) appeared at the hearing.

         On March 31, 2015, the ALJ denied Swartzbaugh's application for benefits in a written decision. On May 28, 2015, Swartzbaugh sought further review of his claims by the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, but his request was denied on November 4, 2016. This makes the ALJ's March 2015 decision the final decision subject to judicial review by this Court.

         Swartzbaugh filed a timely complaint in this Court on January 6, 2017. (Doc. 1). In his complaint, Swartzbaugh alleges that the final decision of the Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence and is contrary to law and regulation.

         On May 17, 2017, the Commissioner filed her answer, in which she maintains that the ALJ's decision was made in accordance with the law and is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 7).

         This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for decision. (Docs. 11, 12, and 15).

         II. Factual Background

         At the time of the administrative hearings, Swartzbaugh was forty nine years old and resided in York, Pennsylvania, which is in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Swartzbaugh completed a high school education and holds a degree in business administration. (Tr. 42).

         Swartzbaugh resides with his wife, mother, and 18 year old son. (Tr. 37). Swartzbaugh stated that he was discharged from his previous employer due to his performance. (Tr. 40).

         Swartzbaugh possesses a driver's license (Tr. 41).

         Swartzbaugh stated that he does volunteer work for Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz, where he serves on the board. He stated the board meets six times a year. (Tr. 47). He stated he plays jazz (drums) approximately six times per month. (Tr. 47). Swartzbaugh stated that he used to play tennis for exercise but has not played since November, 2013. (Tr. 50).

         Swartzbaugh testified that he has been diagnosed with sleep apnea and has a CPAP machine, but probably only uses it for approximately four hours a night. (Tr. 57).

         Swartzbaugh testified that in a typical day, he wakes up around 3:00 p.m. (Tr. 62). He brushes his teeth, makes a pot of coffee, and then takes his medications. He then sits on a chair, watches television, and drinks coffee. Then about 5:00 p.m. he will start to make dinner. After dinner, he typically falls asleep in the living room on a recliner. (Tr. 63-64). He then sleeps for about two hours and wakes up to clean up dinner. He will then use the computer to surf the internet and look at social media. (Tr. 64). He spends approximately two hours on the computer. (Tr. 64).

         Swartzbaugh testified that he practices his drums typically two times a week. (Tr. 65).

         III. Standard of Review

         When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court's review is limited to determining whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence five); 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 (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). 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 the Court, therefore, is not whether the claimant is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that he or 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 [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 . . . .”).

         To receive disability benefits, 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[2] that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity[3] that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act. 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, considering his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512; Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. 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 consistent with his or her RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(f); Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.

         IV. The ALJ's Decision

         In her March 31, 2015, decision, the ALJ determined that Swartzbaugh met the insured status requirement[6] of the Act through December 31, 2015. (Tr. 20). At step one of the five-step process, the ALJ determined that Swartzbaugh did not engage in any substantial gainful activity between his alleged onset date of August 1, 2011, and the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ determined that Swartzbaugh had the following severe impairment: obstructive sleep apnea. (Id.). The ALJ also considered several other health conditions found in the claimant's medical history, finding each to be non-severe. (Tr. 20- 24). At step three, the ALJ determined that Swartzbaugh did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled the severity of any one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 24).

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined Swartzbaugh's RFC based on the evidence of record, including the claimant's testimony, the findings and opinions of treating and examining medical sources, the opinions of a non-examining state agency medical consultant. The ALJ determined that Swartzbaugh retained the RFC to perform a limited range of medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), with certain non-exertional restrictions. (Id.). Specifically, the ALJ found that:

[T]he claimant requires normal breaks throughout the workday, including a 15 minute early shift break, 30 minute lunch break and 15 minute late shift break, with 2 unscheduled 5 minute breaks. The claimant is limited to occasionally crawling on his hand[s] and knees or feet. The claimant is ...

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