United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Schwab, United States Magistrate Judge
Tina Lee Miller (“Miller”) asserts that she has
been disabled and unable to work since February 7, 2015, due
to a number of conditions, including post-Hodgkin's
lymphoma (remission), pneumonia, depression, anxiety, PTSD,
thyroid problems, heart failure, asthma, leg pain, right hip
pain, meningioma, diabetes, and headaches. She brought this
action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of
a final decision of defendant Deputy Commissioner of Social
Security (“the Deputy Commissioner”), who denied
Miller's claim for disability benefits. For the reasons
explained below, we recommend that the final decision of the
Deputy Commissioner denying Miller's claim be AFFIRMED.
Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Deputy
Commissioner. See Doc. 9-1 through Doc.
9-21. Miller protectively filed a Title II
application for disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI
application for supplemental security income on August 11,
2015, alleging January 1, 2013 as the beginning date of
disability. Tr. 13, 186, 193. Miller later amended
her alleged onset date to February 7, 2015. Id. at
13. Miller's claim was initially denied on December 4,
2015. Id. ALJ Sharon Zanotto (“ALJ
Zanotto”) held a hearing for Miller's claims on May
26, 2016, at which Miller appeared with counsel and
testified. Id. ALJ Zanotto denied Miller's claim
and found Miller to be not disabled in a written decision
dated July 14, 2016. Id. at 22. Miller subsequently
filed a timely request for review of ALJ Zanotto's
decision with the Appeals Council, and it was denied October
13, 2016. Id. at 1. On December 13, 2016, Miller
filed this federal action. Doc. 1.
Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of This Court
reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court's
review is limited to determining whether those findings are
supported by substantial evidence in the administrative
record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence five);
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 (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). 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
the Court, therefore, is not whether the claimant is
disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that the
claimant 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 [Commissioner]'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
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); 42
U.S.C. §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); 42 U.S.C.
§1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1505(a),
416.905(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).
making this determination at the administrative level, 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),
steps three and four, 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), 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 impairments 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 in engaging in any of his
or her past relevant work. Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.
this burden has been met by the claimant, it shifts to the
Commissioner at step five 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).
decision dated July 14, 2016, ALJ Zanotto held that Miller
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act. Tr. 22. At step one, ALJ Zanotto determined
that Miller had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since February 7, 2015. Id. at 15. At step two, ALJ
Zanotto found that Miller suffered from the following severe
impairments: (1) asthma, (2) depression, (3) coronary artery
disease, and (4) anxiety disorder. Id.
three, ALJ Zanotto determined that Miller did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Id. at 16. Particularly, ALJ Zanotto considered
Listings 3.03, 4.04, 12.04, and 12.06 and concluded that
Miller's impairments did not meet the criteria of these
listings. Id. at 16-17.
four, ALJ Zanotto found that Miller had:
the residual functional capacity to perform light work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. [§§]404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except she should be allowed to alternate between sitting and
standing as needed without a loss of productivity. She can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs[, ] and she should not
climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She can frequently lift
and carry less than 10 pounds and can occasionally lift 10
pounds. She is limited to no feeling, crouching, kneeling,
and rare stooping, meaning 10 percent or less in a workday.
She can frequently balance. She should not work in hot
temperature extremes and should have no exposure to
non-weather related humidity. She should not work around
moving mechanical parts or around unprotected heights. She is
limited to jobs that involve repetitive short cycle tasks and
occasional decision making. She should not perform jobs that
require adherence to precise limits, tolerances, or
standards, or that requir[e] her to direct, control, plan
activities of others, or influence people's opinions,
attitudes, and judgments. She is limited to occasional
interactions with supervisors and coworkers and no exposure
to the public.
making these findings, ALJ Zanotto gave great weight to
non-examining state psychological consultant Dr. Roger
Fretz's (“Dr. Fretz”) mental RFC assessment
which states that Miller has nothing worse than moderate
limitations in concentration, ...