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Null v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 3, 2019

JAMIE J. NULL, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, 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. 11 and 17]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 12 and 18]. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, Defendant's Motion [ECF No. 17] is granted and Plaintiff's Motion [ECF No. 11] is denied

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Plaintiff applied for SSI on or about December 23, 2014. [ECF No. 9-7 (Exs. C1D, C2D)]. In his application, he alleged that he was disabled due to three crushed vertebrae, degenerative disc disease, social anxiety/panic attacks, and depression, and that he had been unable to work since May 24, 2012. [ECF No. 9-7 (Ex. C2D); ECF No. 9-8 (Ex. C1E)]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John A. Fraser held a video hearing on June 23, 2017, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [ECF No. 9-2, at 26-52]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. at 46-51. In a decision dated August 21, 2017, 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. 9-2, at 12-21]. On April 4, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 2-4. Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 11 and 17]. 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 he 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. § 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 him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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 Erred in Evaluating Plaintiff's Pain Complaints

         At step two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including lumbar degenerative disc disease status post laminectomy syndrome. [ECF No. 9-2, at 14]. At step three of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 17. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except with the following limitations: the claimant could only ...


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