United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
JAMIE J. NULL, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, U.S. SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE
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
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.
parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF
Nos. 11 and 17]. The issues are now ripe for my review.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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.
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).
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).
Whether the ALJ Erred in Evaluating Plaintiff's Pain
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 ...