United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT & RECOMMENDATION
WILLIAM I. ARBUCKLE, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Donna Milbrand, an adult individual who resides within the
Middle District of Pennsylvania, seeks judicial review of the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act. Jurisdiction is conferred on this Court
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
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 certified
administrative transcript, I find the Commissioner's
final decision is not supported by substantial evidence.
Accordingly, I recommend that the Commissioner's final
decision be VACATED.
BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY
November 24, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed an
application for disability insurance benefits under Title II
of the Social Security Act. (Admin. Tr. 122; Doc. 11-5, p.
3). In this application, Plaintiff alleged she became
disabled as of February 17, 2014, when she was 59 years old,
due to the following conditions: arthritis throughout the
body, bilateral knee replacement, bilateral hip replacement,
uterine cancer in remission, high blood pressure
(controlled), high cholesterol, obesity, depression, right
shoulder pain, and two back injuries with continuing pain.
(Admin. Tr. 136; Doc. 11-6, p. 5). Plaintiff alleges that the
combination of these conditions affects her ability to lift,
squat, bend, stand, reach, walk, sit kneel, stair climb, and
completing tasks. (Admin. Tr. 161; Doc. 11-6, p. 30).
Plaintiff completed high school and obtained specialized
training as an LPN. (Admin. Tr. 137; Doc. 11-6, p. 6). Before
the onset of her impairments, Plaintiff worked as a Unit
Clerk. (Admin. Tr. 17; Doc. 11-2, p. 18).
March 18, 2015, Plaintiff's application was denied at the
initial level of administrative review. (Admin. Tr. 63; Doc.
11-3, p. 11). On March 24, 2015, Plaintiff requested an
administrative hearing. (Admin. Tr. 74; Doc. 11-4, p. 11).
November 9, 2016, Plaintiff, assisted by her counsel,
appeared and testified during a hearing before Administrative
Law Judge Howard Kauffman (the “ALJ”). (Admin.
Tr. 23; Doc. 11-2, p. 24). On March 15, 2017, the ALJ issued
a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits.
(Admin. Tr. 8; Doc. 11-2, p. 9). On April 6, 2017, Plaintiff
requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals
Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review
(“Appeals Council”). (Admin. Tr. 118; Doc. 11-4,
October 16, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review. (Admin. Tr. 1; Doc. 11-2, p. 2).
December 18, 2017, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing
a Complaint. (Doc. 1). In the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges
that the ALJ's decision denying the application is not
supported by substantial evidence, and improperly applies the
relevant law and regulations. (Doc. 1). As relief, Plaintiff
requests that the Court award benefits or in the alternative
remand to Commissioner for new hearing. (Doc. 1).
March 20, 2018, the Commissioner filed an Answer. (Doc. 10).
In the Answer, the Commissioner maintains that the decision
holding that Plaintiff is not entitled to disability
insurance benefits was made in accordance with the law and
regulations and is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc.
10). Along with her Answer, the Commissioner filed a
certified transcript of the administrative record. (Doc. 11).
Brief (Doc. 12), the Commissioner's Brief (Doc. 13), and
Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 14) have been filed. This matter
is now ripe for decision.
STANDARDS OF REVIEW
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).
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 Plaintiff is disabled, but whether
the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff 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 . . . .”).
Standards Governing the ALJ's Application of The
Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process
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 12 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. § 404.1505(a). To receive benefits under Title II
of the Social Security Act, 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); 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.
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.
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
ALJ must indicate in his decision which evidence he has
rejected and which he is relying on as the basis for his
finding.” Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).
brief, Plaintiff raises the ...