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Barnhart v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 11, 2019

JARED E. BARNHART, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Judge Mariani

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          SUSAN E. SCHWAB CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Introduction.

         The plaintiff, Jared E. Barnhart (“Mr. Barnhart”), seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. We have jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         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). Because the final decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying Mr. Barnhart's claim.

         II. Procedural History.

         The Court refers to the administrative transcript provided by the Commissioner. See Docs. 8-1 to 8-13.[1] Prior to the instant case, Mr. Barnhart filed a claim for supplemental security income on December 31, 2008, contending that the disability began on December 10, 2008. Admin. Tr. at 13. This claim was initially denied on June 25, 2009, and Mr. Barnhart requested and attended a hearing in 2011, after which an administrative law judge entered an unfavorable decision on February 9, 2011. Id. Mr. Barnhart did not pursue the application further. Id.

         Mr. Barnhart filed a second application for Supplemental Security Income on September 29, 2014, contending that he became disabled on July 25, 2012. Id. After the Commissioner denied Mr. Barnhart's claim at the initial level of administrative review on November 17, 2014, Mr. Barnhart requested an administrative hearing on January 6, 2015. Id. On November 29, 2016, with the assistance of counsel, Mr. Barnhart testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Timothy Wing. Id. at 29-66. The ALJ determined that Mr. Barnhart has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act since September 29, 2014, the date of his application, and so denied Mr. Barnhart's application for benefits on March 7, 2017. Id. at 24. Mr. Barnhart appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied his request for review on May 15, 2018. Id. at 1-3. This makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court.

         On May 18, 2018, Mr. Barnhart initiated this action by filing a complaint claiming that the finding that he “was not disabled . . . is not supported by substantial evidence and [the Commissioner applied] an erroneous standard of law.” Doc. 1 at 1. Mr. Barnhart requests that the Court reverse the ALJ's decision and award him benefits for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Id. at 2. The Commissioner filed an answer and a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings. Docs. 7, 8. The parties have filed briefs, and this matter is ready for decision. Docs. 9, 12.

         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), 1383(c)(3); 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).

         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 Mr. Barnhart is disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that he 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 than an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial evidence.”) (alterations omitted); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary).

         B. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for the ALJ.

         In order to receive benefits under the Social Security Act by reason of disability, 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.905(a). To satisfy this requirement, a claimant must have a severe physical or mental impairment that makes it impossible to do his or ...


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