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Cole v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 4, 2019

KELLIE COLE, Plaintiff,

          Munley Judge.


          Susan E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction.

         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The plaintiff, Kellie Cole (“Cole”), seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability benefits and supplemental security income. We conclude that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and accordingly recommend that the court vacate and remand the decision on that basis.

         II. Background and Procedural History.

         We refer to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See docs. 8-1 to 8-13.[1] On January 15, 2015, Cole applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that she has been disabled since October 27, 2014. Admin. Tr. at 166. The Social Security Administration denied Cole's claim initially on June 25, 2015. Id. at 86. Following the initial denial of Cole's claim, the case went before Administrative Law Judge Richard E. Guida (“ALJ”), who concluded, on June 7, 2017, that Cole was not disabled and denied her benefits on that basis. Id. at 19. Cole requested review of the ALJ's decision before the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on May 2, 2018. Id. at 2. Cole then filed a complaint with this Court on June 4, 2018, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny her benefits. Doc. 1. On August 27, 2018, the Commissioner filed an answer to the complaint and a transcript of the proceedings before the Social Security Administration. Docs. 7-8. Cole filed a brief in support of her complaint on October 11, 2018, the Commissioner filed a brief in opposition on November 7, 2018, and Cole filed a reply on November 19, 2018. Docs. 9-11.

         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) (2018); 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 is “more than a mere scintilla.” Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “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.'” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)). “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.” Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1994) (quoting Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)).

         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 an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Port Norris Express Co. v. Interstate Commerce Comm'n, 697 F.2d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 1982) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. 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) (citing Smith, 637 F.2d at 970).

         The question before this court, therefore, is not whether Cole was disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that she was not disabled and whether the Commissioner correctly applied the relevant law.

         B. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation.

         To receive disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2018); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2018). 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), 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In addition, a claimant must show that he or she contributed to the insurance program, is under retirement age, and became disabled prior to the date on which he or she was last insured. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a).

         The ALJ follows a five-step sequential-evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); 20 C.F.R. §416.920(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 ...

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