United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
CHARLES VITANZA, O.B.O. KATHY VITANZA Plaintiff
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
William I. Arbuckle, U.S. Magistrate Judge.
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.
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.
STATEMENT OF FACTS AND OF THE CASE
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.
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).
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).
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).
case has been fully briefed and is ripe for decision. (Doc.
11); (Doc. 17); (Doc. 18).
Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of This Court
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 . . . .”).
Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for
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). 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. §
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.
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).
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.
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.
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