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Grimm v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 4, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          Mariani, Judge



         I. Introduction

         In evaluating Social Security Appeals, we are enabled to apply a deferential standard of review, which calls upon us simply to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) findings. An ALJ faces a demanding task, as they are required to make a series of legal, medical and factual judgments in the course of adjudicating disability claims. Oftentimes, the ALJ's task is complicated by the fact that the medical records submitted are sparse and sporadic in support of a disability claim. In the instant case, we are called upon to review a decision by an ALJ that found that the Plaintiff, Belinda Grimm (“Ms. Grimm”), could perform her past relevant job as a cardiovascular technician as generally performed in the national economy and concluded that she was not disabled. Ms. Grimm now challenges this determination and alleges that that the ALJ erred in various aspects. Ms. Grimm first takes issue with the ALJ's determination that she did not meet Listing 1.04A. Next, Ms. Grimm contends that the ALJ failed to consider certain aspects of the vocational expert's testimony. Finally, Ms. Grimm argues that the ALJ's decision that she could perform her past position as a cardiovascular technician is in error.

         Given the deferential standard of review that applies to Social Security Appeals, which calls upon us simply to determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, we conclude that substantial evidence exists in this case which justified the ALJ's decisions that led to the denial of Ms. Grimm's claim. Therefore, for the reasons set forth below, we recommend that the District Court affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

         II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         Ms. Grimm's health ailments related to her disability claims stem from a history of chronic neck and back pain (Tr. 367-397), which ultimately resulted in an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion and plating of C4-5, C5-C6, and C6-C7 on March 12, 2013. (Tr. 400-401.) While Ms. Grimm's recovery was largely normal, on April 10, 2014, she protectively filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 129-130.) Ms. Grimm claimed that she had been disabled since March 8, 2013, because of “depression, anxiety, hypertension, neck issues, back issues, arm issues, diabetes, high cholesterol, and degenerative disc disease.” (Tr. 129; 141.) At the time of Ms. Grimm's application, and the onset of her alleged disability, she was in her early 50's and was considered a “person closely approaching advanced age” according to the regulations promulgated under the authority of the Act.[2] (Tr. 138.)

         Ms. Grimm is a high school graduate and attended specialized training to be a cardiovascular technician. (Tr. 142.) She worked as a cardiovascular technician from September 2003 through March 2013. (Id.) Ms. Grimm reported that she stopped working because after her neck surgery, she ran out of medical leave and eventually got fired. (Tr. 296.) Ms. Grimm described her pain as constant and that it radiates in her neck and travels down through her shoulder blades, into her arms. (Tr. 162.) She described the pain as burning and tingling, and explained that the heavier the activity is that she engaged in, the more severe the pain. (Tr. 169.)

         Ms. Grimm's disability application was initially denied on July 8, 2014, (Tr. 79-83) and on July 10, 2014, she sought a hearing to contest the denial. (Tr. 84-85.) On November 12, 2015, the ALJ conducted a hearing considering Ms. Grimm's disability application. (Tr. 48-65.) At this hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Ms. Grimm and Sheryl Bustin, an impartial vocational expert. (Id.) Following the hearing, on December 9, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Ms. Grimm's application for disability benefits. (Tr. 33-47.) In this decision, the ALJ first found that Ms. Grimm met the insured requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018. (Tr. 38.) At Step 2 of the five-step sequential analysis process that applies to Social Security disability claims, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Grimm suffers from the following severe impairment: neck disorder. (Id.) At Step 3 of this sequential analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Grimm's impairment did not meet a listing that would define her as per se disabled. (Tr. 40.)

         Before considering Step 4, the ALJ fashioned Ms. Grimm's residual functional capacity. The ALJ concluded that Ms. Grimm is able to perform a range of light work with limitations. (Tr. 33.) Specifically, the ALJ determined that Ms. Grimm can occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and reach. (Id.) The ALJ limited Ms. Grimm's occasional reaching to only occasional extension, flexion, and rotation of neck. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ determined Ms. Grimm can never climb ladders or overhead reach. (Id.)

         In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ partially discounted Ms. Grimm's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms, noting that the objective clinical findings do not corroborate the allegations of the disabling extent asserted. (Tr. 41.) The ALJ then canvassed the clinical, diagnostic, and medical opinion evidence before concluding that Ms. Grimm retained the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work, with the above discussed limitations. (Id.) Having made these findings, the ALJ concluded that, consistent with the testimony of the vocational expert, Ms. Grimm could return to her past relevant work as a cardiovascular technician. (Tr. 42.) The ALJ determined that Ms. Grimm was able to perform her past relevant work as it is generally performed, consistent with the testimony of the vocational expert. (Id.) Ultimately, the ALJ found Ms. Grimm not disabled. (Tr. 43.)

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies with respect to this adverse decision, Ms. Grimm filed the instant appeal. (Doc. 1.) On appeal, Ms. Grimm argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence in the record and that the ALJ committed an error of law. (Doc. 1 at 2.) The parties have now fully briefed this matter, (Doc. 10; Doc. 13) and this case is now ripe for resolution.

         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 the findings of the final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g); 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). 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 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 this Court, therefore, is not whether Ms. Grimm is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that 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 Secretary'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 . . . .”).

         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); see also 20 C.F.R. §404.1505(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); 20 C.F.R. §404.1505(a). To receive 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).

         In making this determination at the administrative level, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(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).

         Between Steps 3 and 4, the ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC. RFC is defined as “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., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1). In making this assessment, the ALJ considers all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any non-severe impairments identified by the ALJ at step two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. §404.1545(a)(2).

         At Steps 1 through 4, the claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the existence of a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her in engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. §404.1512;[3] Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. Once this burden has been met by the claimant, it shifts to the Commissioner at Step 5 to show that jobs exist in significant number in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with the claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §404.1512(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 this disability determination. Thus, in order to facilitate review of the decision under the substantial evidence standard, the ALJ's decision must be accompanied by "a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which it 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 706-707. In addition, “[t]he ALJ must indicate in his decision which evidence he has rejected and which he is relying on as the basis for his finding.” Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).

         IV. ...

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