United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
SALLIE A. MANTELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILLDEPUTY COMMISSIONER OF OPERATIONS FOR SOCIAL SECURITY Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. SCHWAB CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
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).
Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner.
See Doc. 11-1 through Doc.
10-24. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Substantial Evidence Review-the Role of This Court.
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).
Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for
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),
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). 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.
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;
whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a
whether the claimant is able to do his or her past relevant
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).
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. §§
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; 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.
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 ...