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Schwartz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 25, 2018



          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.


         Plaintiff Julia Marie Schwartz ("Schwartz") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.SC. § 405(g) for review of the ALJ's decision denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB").[2] She alleges a disability beginning on April 4, 2013. (R. 20) Following a hearing before an ALJ, during which time both Schwartz and a vocational expert ("VE") testified, the ALJ denied her claim. Schwartz appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF docket nos. [12] and [16].

         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 Schwartz had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 6, 2-14. (R. 22)[3] At step two, the ALJ concluded that Schwartz has the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD), asthma, emphysema, fibromyalgia, polymyositis, myopericaditis, lumbar degenerative disc disease, trochanteric bursitis, nonspecific myopathy, and osteoarthritis. (R. 23-27)[4]

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Schwartz 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 fibromyalgia pursuant to SSR 12-2P, Listing 1.04 (degenerative disc disease), 3.02 (chronic pulmonary insufficiency), 4.04 (alleged heart conditions), 14.05 (polymyositis and dermatomyositis), 14.09 (inflammatory arthritis), but determined that Schwartz did not satisfy the criteria. (R. 27-28)

         Prior to engaging in step four, the ALJ assessed Schwartz's residual functional capacity ("RFC").[5] The ALJ found Schwartz able to perform sedentary work with certain limitations. (R. 28-32)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Schwartz is capable of performing her past relevant work as an administrative assistant. (R. 32) Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Schwartz "is able to perform it as actually and generally performed." (R. 32) Consequently, the ALJ did not proceed to the fifth step of the sequential analysis.

         3. Mental Impairments

         Schwartz contends that the ALJ erred in determining at the second step of the analysis that she had no "severe" mental impairments. See ECF Docket No. 13, p. 4-9. The two-step inquiry into an impairment's severity 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). As set forth in2OC.F.R. § 404.1521(a), an impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit a claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. The regulations define basic work activities as the abilities or aptitudes necessary to do most jobs. 2OC.F.R. § 404.1521(b). Thus, an impairment is not severe if the evidence establishes only a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. Newell, 347 F.3d at 546; Mays v. Barnhart, 78 Fed.Appx. 808, 811 (3d Cir. 2003). Any doubt as to whether the step-two showing has been made must be resolved in favor of the claimant. Newell, 347 F.3d at 546-47.[6]

         In cases involving mental impairments, the Social Security Administration Regulations set forth a specific technique for determining whether the mental impairment is severe. 2OC.F.R. § 404.1520a. Under this technique, if the ALJ determines that a claimant's symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings support the existence of a medically determinable impairment, he then must assess the claimant's limitations in four functional areas to determine whether that impairment is "severe." Id., § 404.1520a(b). The four functional areas include: activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id., § 404.1520a(c). If the ALJ rates the degree of the claimant's limitation in the first three functional areas as "none" or "mild" and as "none" in the fourth area, he generally will conclude that the impairment is not severe unless the evidence otherwise indicates that there is more than a minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to do basic work activities. Id., §404.1520a(d)(1). In his written decision, the ALJ must incorporate his pertinent findings and conclusions based on this technique, including a specific finding as to the degree of limitation in each of the four functional areas. Id., § 404.1520(e). The key question when reviewing the ALJ's Step Two determination is not whether Plaintiff's impairments were in fact severe, but, rather, whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that those impairments were not severe.

         Here, I agree with the Commissioner that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Schwartz's mental impairments are not severe.[7] As an initial matter, the ALJ properly analyzed Schwartz's impairment in accordance with the special technique set forth in 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520a. First, the ALJ recognized that Schwartz "does have mental health conditions that are medically determinable impairments...." (R. 24) Specifically, the ALJ acknowledged that Schwartz had been diagnosed with recurrent severe major depression. (R. 24) He then properly analyzed those impairments in accordance with the special techniques outlined above, including making specific findings as to the degree of limitation in each of the four functional areas as a result of Schwartz's mental impairments. (R. 24-27) In this regard, the ALJ concluded that Schwartz had mild limitations in the activities of daily living, no more than mild limitations in the area of social functioning, mild ...

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