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Knoll v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 28, 2018

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

          Mehalchick, Magistrate Judge.



         Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Karoline Mehalchick's report and recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”) which proposes denying Plaintiff Lisa Knoll's (hereinafter “plaintiff” or “claimant”) appeal of Defendant Social Security Administration's (hereinafter “SSA”) decision denying plaintiff's claims brought on behalf of her minor son for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 22). The matter is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.


         Plaintiff Knoll has a minor child, E.G.K., who suffers from social anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), and a learning disability. Plaintiff began her quest for supplemental security income for E.G.K. on August 18, 2013, when she filed a Title XVI application for benefits. Plaintiff Knoll claimed that her son's disability began on May 1, 2006.

         On March 25, 2014, the SSA denied plaintiff's claims. Upon learning that her claim was denied, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter “ALJ”).

         At said hearing on June 25, 2015, Judge Randy Riley found that E.G.K., who was thirteen (13) years old at the time and going into the seventh grade, was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the SSA Appeals Council, and her appeal was denied on January 25, 2017.

         Plaintiff initiated the instant action on February 21, 2017, asking the court to reverse the decision of the ALJ and award benefits, or remand for a new hearing. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff seeks this reversal on the grounds that the ALJ's decision to deny her claim was not supported by substantial evidence and is based on the incorrect application of legal principles.

         Magistrate Judge Mehalchick reviewed the record in this case and recommends that plaintiff's request for relief be denied and final judgment be issued in favor of the defendant. (Doc. 22). Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R on March 14, 2018. (Doc. 25). The defendant responded on March 28, 2018, bringing this case to its present posture. (Doc. 27).


         The court has federal question jurisdiction over this SSA appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has his principal place of business....”).

         Legal Standard

         In disposing of objections to a magistrate judge's R&R, the district court must make a de novo determination of those portions of the report against which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. S 636(b)(1)(c); see also Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir. 1983). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 877 (3d Cir. 1987). The district court judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id.

         In reviewing a Social Security appeal, the court must determine whether “substantial evidence” supports the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). “[S]ubstantial evidence has been defined as ‘more than a mere scintilla.' ” Hagans, 694 F.3d at 292 (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

         The court should not reverse the Commissioner's findings merely because evidence may exist to support the opposite conclusion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute their own conclusions for those of the fact-finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) (indicating that when the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, courts are bound by those findings, even if they would have decided the factual inquiry differently). 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 an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo, 383 U.S. at 620.

         Substantial evidence exists only “in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, ” Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981), and “must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). “When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but ‘cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.' ” Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (quoting Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993)). The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 204 (3d Cir. 2008). Thus, a reviewing court must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).


         To receive disability benefits, a claimant under the age of eighteen must demonstrate that he or she “has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(I). Notwithstanding the above, no child who engages in substantial gainful activity, as defined by the Social Security regulations, may be found disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 416.906.

         The ALJ evaluates whether a child is eligible for SSI payments by reason of disability with a three-step sequential analysis. This analysis requires the ALJ to consider, in sequence, whether the child (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a medically determinable, severe impairment; and (3) whether the child's impairment or combination of impairments meets, medically equals, or ...

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