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Washington v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 1, 2018

DONNA LEE WASHINGTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.

         Pending before the court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 10 and 12). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 11 and 13). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 12).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed her application alleging disability since October 31, 2012. (ECF No. 8-5, p. 2, 4). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Leslie Perry-Dowdell, held a hearing on June 8, 2016. (ECF No. 8-2, pp. 31-44). On September 16, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 8-2, pp. 19-26).

         After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 10 and 12). The issues are now ripe for 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. §423(d)(1)(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(a). 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., appx. 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. 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. Plaintiff's Work Activity

         In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “did not engage in substantial gainful activity at any time from the alleged onset date, October 31, 2012, through the date last insured, March 31, 2014, but she did return to substantial gainful activity from February to December 2015.” (ECF No. 8-2, p. 21). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider the Plaintiff's work activity from February - December 2015 as a trial work period. (ECF No. 11, p. 4). “We argue that Plaintiff's work activity from 02/15 to 12/15, was a temporary trial work period in accordance to the Commissioner's Regulations.” Id., at p. 2. The regulation cited by Plaintiff in support of this argument is 20 C.FR. §404.1592. Id. Section 404.1592 allows for a trial work period of up to nine months during which an individual can test his/her ability to work full time, without losing a disabled status. See, 20 C.F.R. §404.1592(a). As set forth above, the trial work period alleged by Plaintiff in her brief was a ten month time period - “from February to December 2015.” (ECF No. 11, p. 4). Thus, Plaintiff's work extended beyond nine months, making §404.1592 inapplicable. Additionally, a plaintiff is “generally entitled to a trial work period if you are entitled to disability insurance benefits….” 20 C.F.R. §404.1592(d)(1). For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff has failed to show that ALJ's determination that she was not entitled to benefits to be in error. Therefore, Plaintiff is not entitled to disability insurance benefits for any period at issue here and this argument is moot. Consequently, I find no error in this regard.

         C. Residual Functional Capacity ...


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