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Rae v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 30, 2018

KYLEE ELIZABETH RAE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

          Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge

         SYNOPSIS

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 9 and 13]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 10 and 14]. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 9] and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. [ECF No. 13].

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on or about September 17, 2013. [ECF No. 7-7 (Exs. B3D, B4D)]. In her applications, she alleged that since November 5, 2012, she had been disabled due to depression, anxiety disorder, sinus problems, back pain, pain in both hips, sleep problems, fungus on toes, pollen/grass/weed allergies, vitamin d deficiency, possible rheumatoid arthritis, and problem with left arm. [ECF No. 7-8 (Ex. B3E)]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael S. Kaczmarek held a hearing on November 19, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [ECF No. 7-3, at 43-74]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. at 71-74. In a decision dated March 10, 2016, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. [ECF No. 7-2, at 23-36]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on May 23, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. [ECF No. 7-2, at 2-4]. Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 9 and 13]. The issues are now ripe for my review.

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. 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, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that she 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. § 1382(a)(3)(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, 416.920. 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, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her 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 (3d Cir. 1984).

         B. WHETHER THE ALJ IMPROPERLY DISREGARDED THE MEDICAL OPINIONS OF PLAINTIFF'S TREATING AND EXAMINING PHYSICIANS

         At Step Two of his analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. [ECF No. 7-2, at 25-26]. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that Plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to extremes of heat and cold and all hazards such as inherently dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights; she is limited to performing routine, repetitive tasks at the SVP 1 to 2 level; she must work in a static low stress environment involving only simple decisions and infrequent changes, and those changes that did occur would be explained and/or demonstrated and could be learned in 30 days or less; her work must be fast paced or have strict production or time quotas; and she can have only occasional interaction with ...


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