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Miller v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 14, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1] Deputy Commissioner for Operations of Social Security Defendant.

          Mannion, Judge


          Susan E. Schwab, United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff 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.

         II. Background

         The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Deputy Commissioner. See Doc. 9-1 through Doc. 9-21.[2] 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.

         III. Legal Standards

         A. Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of This Court

         When 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 . . . .”).

         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); 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).

         In 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), 416.920(a)(4).

         Between 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. §§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 in engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.

         Once 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.

         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. ALJ Decision

         In her 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.

         At step 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.

         At step 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.

Tr. 17-18.

         In 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, ...

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