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Vitanza v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 14, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          BRANN, D.J.


          William I. Arbuckle, U.S. Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff Charles Vitanza (“Plaintiff”), the adult son of the late Kathy Vitanza (“Claimant”), an adult individual who resided within the Middle District of Pennsylvania and filed for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act prior to her death, seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Claimant's application for benefits. (Doc. 1). Jurisdiction is conferred on this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         This matter has been referred to me to prepare a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After reviewing the parties' briefs, the Commissioner's final decision, and the relevant portions of the administrative record I find that the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is not supported by substantial evidence. It is RECOMMENDED that the final decision of the Commissioner be VACATED, and this case be REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to conduct a new administrative hearing.


         On October 9, 2014, Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. In her application, Claimant alleged that the onset of her disability was August 28, 2014, and that her disability was a result of the following impairments: cervicalgia, lumbago, lumbar canal stenosis, lumbar radiculopathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, spondylosis, anxiety, and insomnia. (Admin. Tr. 183; Doc. 8-7, p. 9). Claimant was fifty (50) years old on her alleged onset date, and she had past relevant work as a secretary/bookkeeper. (Admin. Tr. 36; Doc. 8-2, p. 37). Claimant had at least a high school education and was able to read and write in English. Id.

         On December 22, 2014, Claimant's application was denied at the initial level of administrative review. (Admin. Tr. 26; Doc. 8-2, p. 27). Following the denial of her application, Claimant requested an administrative hearing on January 23, 2015. Id. On December 13, 2016, Claimant appeared and testified, with the assistance of counsel, at an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Daniel Balutis. Id. Impartial vocational expert Nadine Henzes (the “VE”) also appeared and testified during the proceedings. Id. On December 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's application for benefits. (Admin. Tr. 26-37; Doc. 8-2, pp. 27-38). Following the denial of her application at the ALJ hearing level, Claimant submitted a request for review of the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, and this request was subsequently denied on December 19, 2017. (Admin. Tr. 1; Doc. 8-2, p. 2).

         On January 16, 2018, Claimant initiated this action by filing a Complaint in which she alleged that the ALJ's final decision denying her application was erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 1). On April 29, 2018, Claimant passed away (Doc. 12 p. 1), and on June 27, 2018, a motion to substitute a party plaintiff was granted to allow Plaintiff to pursue Claimant's appeal with the Court. (Doc. 14). As relief, Plaintiff requests that the Court enter an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner and granting Claimant's application and any relief that the Court finds to be proper. (Doc. 1 pp. 1-2).

         On March 27, 2018, the Commissioner filed her Answer in which she maintains that the decision denying Claimant's Application is correct; was made in accordance with the law; and is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 7 p. 3). Along with her Answer, the Commissioner filed a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings. (Doc. 8).

         This case has been fully briefed and is ripe for decision. (Doc. 11); (Doc. 17); (Doc. 18).


         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 the findings of the final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 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). 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 decision] 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 Claimant is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of 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); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D. Pa. 1981) (“The Secretary's determination as to the status of a claim requires the correct application of the law to the facts.”); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d at 536 (“[T]he court has plenary review of all legal issues . . . .”).

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

         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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).[1] 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 making this determination at the administrative level, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 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).

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC. RFC is defined as “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., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In making this assessment, the ALJ considers all the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any non-severe impairments identified by the ALJ at step two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).

         At steps one through four, the claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the existence of a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her in engaging in any of his or her past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512; Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.

         Once this burden has been met by the claimant, it shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant number in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with the claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(f); Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064.

         The ALJ's disability determination must also meet certain basic substantive requisites. Most significant among these legal benchmarks is a requirement that the ALJ adequately explain the legal and factual basis for this disability determination. Thus, to facilitate review of the decision under the substantial evidence standard, the ALJ's decision must be accompanied by “a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which it 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 706-707. In addition, “[t]he ...

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