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Rinier v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 25, 2018



          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.


         Plaintiff Landon Rinier ("Rinier") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.SC. § 405(g) for review of the ALJ's decision denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). He alleges a disability beginning on April 25, 2009. (R. 11) Following a hearing before an ALJ, during which time both Rinier and a vocational expert ("VE") testified, the ALJ denied his claim. Rinier appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF docket nos. [11 ] and [13].

         Legal Analysis

         1. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is "not merely a quantitative exercise." Gilliland v. Heckler 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). "A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)." Id., The Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See, 5 U.S.C. §706.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the claimant must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986). The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404, subpt. P, appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id. A district court, after reviewing the entire record, may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3dCir. 1984).

         2. The ALJ's Analysis

         At Step One, the ALJ found that Rinier had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of April 25, 2009 through his date last insured of December 31, 2014. (R. 13) At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Rinier has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia; arthritis; obesity; and depression. (R. 13-14) The ALJ referenced some other conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome and migraines, but found that they did not constitute "severe impairments." (R. 13-14).

         At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Rinier does 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, Subpt. P, Appendix 1. The ALJ considered Listings 1.00 (musculoskeletal system) and 12.00 (mental impairments).

         Prior to engaging in Step Four, the ALJ assessed Rinier's residual functional capacity ("RFC").[2] The ALJ found Rinier able to perform a range of sedentary work, with some restrictions. (R. 15-21)

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Rinier was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. 21) Specifically, the ALJ found that his past relevant work as a warehouse supervisor and a material handler were inconsistent with his RFC. (R. 21) Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ found that, considering Rinier's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that Rinier can perform. (R. 21-23) For instance, the ALJ explained that Rinier would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as an office helper/ information clerk, a bench assembler, and a packer / sorter. (R. 22).

         3. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

         Rinier argues that the ALJ failed to properly apply the de minimis standard applicable to the Step Two analysis when evaluating his carpal tunnel syndrome. "The two-step inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Newell v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec,347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir. 2003). Even so, "[w]hen an ALJ finds that a claimant has at least one severe impairment, omission of another at step two may be harmless error as long as the impairment is considered regarding the RFC or would not affect the outcome of the case." Torres v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec, Civ. No. 17-843, 2018 WL 1251630, * 5 (D. N.J. March 12, 2018), citing, Salles v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec, 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 145 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2007) ("Because the ALJ found in [Plaintiffs] favor at Step Two, ...

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