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Mantell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 30, 2018




         I. Introduction.

         The plaintiff Sallie A. Mantell seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. We have jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         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) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). Because the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is not supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court VACATE the final decision of the Commissioner denying Ms. Mantell's claims and REMAND the case to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Procedural History.

         The Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. 11-1 through Doc. 10-24.[2] In March of 2013, Ms. Mantell filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, and in April of 2013, she filed an application for Supplemental Security Income contending that she became disabled on April 24, 2011. Admin. Tr. at 139-164, 200-210. These were not, however, the first applications for benefits that Ms. Mantell filed; an administrative law judge denied Ms. Mantell's earlier applications on January 3, 2013. Id. at 122-138. Given that earlier decision, Ms. Mantell now agrees that the alleged onset date here is January 4, 2013. See Doc. 14 at 2 n.3.

         After the Commissioner denied Ms. Mantell's claims at the initial level of administrative review, Ms. Mantell requested an administrative hearing. Admin. Tr. at 27. On December 18, 2014, with the assistance of counsel, she testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jarrod Tranguch. Id. at 53-87.

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Mantell was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from January 4, 2013, through the date of his decision on March 23, 2015, and so he denied Ms. Mantell's applications for benefits. Id. at 28-52. Ms. Mantell appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on November 17, 2016. Id. at 1-6. This makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court.

         In January of 2017, Ms. Mantell began this action by filing a complaint claiming that the ALJ's decision is “erroneous and contrary to settled law.” Doc. 1 at ¶ 15. She requests that the Court reverse the ALJ's decision and award her benefits or, in the alternative, remand the case to the Commissioner for a new hearing. Id. The Commissioner filed an answer and a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings. Docs. 10, 11. The parties have filed briefs, and this matter is ripe for decision. Docs. 14, 15, 18.

         III. Legal Standards.

         A. Substantial Evidence Review-the Role of This Court.

         When reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a claimant's application for benefits, this Court's review is limited to the question of whether substantial evidence supports the findings of the final decision-maker. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); 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) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). 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). But 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] finding 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 this Court, therefore, is not whether Ms. Mantell was disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that she was not disabled and the Commissioner correctly applied 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); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary).

         B. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for the ALJ.

         To receive benefits under the Social Security Act by reason of disability, 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(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 the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         To receive disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that he or she contributed to the insurance program, is under retirement age, and became disabled prior to the date on which he or she was last insured. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131(a).[3] Unlike with disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, “[i]nsured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant's eligibility for supplemental security income benefits” under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Snyder v. Colvin, No. 3:16-CV-01689, 2017 WL 1078330, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 22, 2017). Supplemental Security Income “is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes)” “designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income.” Id.

         In determining whether the claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). Under this process, the ALJ must sequentially determine: (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 his or her past relevant work; and

         (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering his or her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC. RFC is “that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s).” Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1), 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). In making this assessment, the ALJ considers all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any non-severe impairment identified by the ALJ at step two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(2), 416.945(a)(2).

         At steps one through four, the claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the existence of a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(5), 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i) (incorporating 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5) by reference); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912;[4] Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant number in the national economy that the claimant could perform and that are consistent with the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(f), 416.912(f); Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.

         The ALJ's disability determination must also meet certain basic substantive requisites. Most significant among these legal benchmarks is a requirement that the ALJ adequately explain the legal and factual basis for the disability determination. Thus, in order to facilitate review of the decision under the substantial evidence standard, the ALJ's decision must provide “a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which” his or her decision rests. Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981). Conflicts in the evidence must be resolved, and the ALJ must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Id. at 706-07. In other words, “[t]he ALJ ...

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