United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
C. CARLSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
Statement of Facts and of the Case
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. (Tr. 138.)
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of this
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 . . . .”).
Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation
for the ALJ
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
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.
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).
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; 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.
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).