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Stover v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 2, 2019

JOHN R. STOVER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION TO DENY PLAINTIFF'S APPEAL

          GERALD B. COHN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for a report and recommendation. John R. Stover (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's decision finding of not disabled. As set forth below, the undersigned recommends to DENY Plaintiff's appeal and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision in this case.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To receive disability or supplemental security benefits under the Act, a claimant bears the burden to 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); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Plaintiff must demonstrate the physical or mental impairment “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 2005). The process requires an ALJ to decide whether an applicant (1) is engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) suffers from a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment;” (3) suffers from “an impairment(s) that meets or equals one” listed in the regulation's appendix; (4) has a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) allowing for performance of “past relevant work;” and (5) can “make an adjustment to other work.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         If at any of the steps a determination exists that a plaintiff is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 2005). If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Id.

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations”); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Sanfilippo v. Barnhart, 325 F.3d 391, 393 (3d Cir. 2003) (plenary review of legal questions in social security cases). 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) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Court's review is based on the record, and the Court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the [Administrative Law Judge's] findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). 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) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance” and “more than a mere scintilla.” Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         The Court may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the fact-finder. Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). The Court will not set the Commissioner's decision aside if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the Court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir.1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On July 29, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI supplemental security income and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1382-1383, with a last insured date of December 31, 2017, [1] and an amended alleged disability onset date of July 23, 2013. (Tr. 10, 37). Plaintiff alleged disability due to the following impairments: bipolar disorder; borderline personality disorder; obesity; diabetes; and neuropathy. (Tr. 86). On May 4, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 7-26). Plaintiff sought review of the decision, which the Appeals Council denied on August 7, 2017, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the “final decision” of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (Tr. 1-6).

         On October 6, 2017, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to appeal a decision of Defendant denying social security benefits. (Doc. 1). On December 20, 2017, Defendant filed an answer and an administrative transcript of proceedings. (Doc. 9, 10). On February 5, 2018, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of the appeal. (Doc.13 (“Pl. Br.”)). On February 26, 2018, Defendant filed a brief in response. (Doc. 14 (“Def. Br.”)). On March 23, 2018, Plaintiff filed a reply. (Doc. 17 (Reply)).

         III. ISSUES

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges four errors: (1) the ALJ erred in “finding the Plaintiff was able to do work at the light exertional level despite giving partial weight to the opinions of the Plaintiff's treating or examining provides;” (2) the ALJ erred in “finding the Plaintiff could have occasional contact with supervisors but no contact with the public or coworkers;” (3) the ALJ erred in “failing to find that the Plaintiff had any deficits in maintaining attention, concentration and pace despite giving significant weight to the opinions of the ...


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