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Dowd v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 2, 2018

KELLY SUE DOWD Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          Munley, Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          SUSAN E. SCHWAB, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. Introduction.

         The plaintiff, Kelly Sue Dowd (“Ms. Dowd”), seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Chief Magistrate Judge to prepare a report and recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Fed R. Civ. P. 72(b). We have jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Because the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying Ms. Dowd's claim.

         II. Procedural History.

         The Court refers to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See doc. 11-1 through doc. 11-14.[2] In October 2014, Ms. Dowd applied for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging disability beginning March 31, 2014. Admin. Tr. at 17. The Commissioner denied Ms. Dowd's claim at the initial level of administrative review, and Ms. Dowd requested an administrative hearing. Id. Ms. Dowd then testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Edward L. Brady on September 27, 2016. Id. at 17, 31-55. The ALJ determined that Ms. Dowd was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act between March 31, 2014, and the date of his decision. Id. at 26. Ms. Dowd appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her request in a notice dated July 17, 2017. Id. at 1-3. Thus, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner and is subject to judicial review by this Court.

         Ms. Dowd initiated this action on September 7, 2017, by filing a complaint seeking judicial review of the ALJ's final adverse decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 1. Ms. Dowd asks that the ALJ's decision be reversed and this case be remanded for further administrative proceedings. Doc. 12 at 19. The issues have been fully briefed, and this matter is ripe for decision. Docs. 12, 15, 16.

         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 substantial evidence supports the findings of the final decision-maker. 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) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). 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] finding 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. Dowd was disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that she was not disabled and whether the Commissioner correctly applied 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); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary).

         B. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation.

         To receive disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 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). In addition, 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).[3]

         The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether the claimant is disabled. 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).

         The ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC between steps three and four. RFC is “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. Admin., 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 impairment identified by the ALJ at step two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).

         Should the analysis proceed to step five, the ALJ must produce evidence to show that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy, each consistent with the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, that the claimant could perform. See Fargnoli v. Halter, 247 F.3d 34, 39 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999)). But the burden of proving disability rests on the claimant, who in the earlier steps must show the existence of a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. See id.; see also Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a).

         The ALJ's disability determination must also meet certain basic substantive requirements. Most significant is the requirement that the ALJ adequately explain the legal and factual basis for the disability determination. Thus, in order to facilitate review of the decision under the substantial evidence standard, the ALJ's decision must provide “a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which” his or her decision 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 706-07. In other words, “[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. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).

         IV. The ALJ's Decision Denying Ms. Dowd's Claim.

         On January 11, 2017, the ALJ denied Ms. Dowd's claim for benefits. Applying the sequential-evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Ms. Dowd was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the alleged onset date, ...


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