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Lewis v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 6, 2019

MICHAEL L. LEWIS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1]Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          Mannion, Judge.


          Susan E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction.

         This is a social security appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The plaintiff, Michael Lewis (“Mr. Lewis”), seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         This matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Chief Magistrate Judge to prepare a report and recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). Because the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the Court vacate the decision and remand the case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings.

         II. Procedural History.

         The Court refers to the administrative transcript provided by the Commissioner. See docs. 12-1 to 12-11.[2] On June 3, 2015, Mr. Lewis protectively filed an application for a period of Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits contending that he became disabled on April 14, 2015. Admin. Tr. at 15. After the Commissioner denied Mr. Lewis's claim at the initial level of administrative review on September 21, 2015, Mr. Lewis requested an administrative hearing on September 25, 2015. Id. On April 21, 2017, with the assistance of a non-attorney representative, Mr. Lewis testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Melissa Hammock (“ALJ”). Id. at 31-78.

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Lewis had not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from April 14, 2015, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2019, the date last insured, and so denied Mr. Lewis's application for benefits on July 31, 2017. Id. at 26. Mr. Lewis appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council on July 31, 2017, which denied his request for review on May 21, 2018. Id. at 1-4. This makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner and subject to judicial review by this Court.

         On July 24, 2018, Mr. Lewis initiated this action by filing a complaint seeking “such relief as may be proper.” Doc. 1. The Commissioner filed an answer and a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings. Docs. 11, 12. The parties have filed briefs, and this matter is ripe for decision. Docs. 15, 18-19.

         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, “the court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner.” Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536 (M.D. Pa. 2012). But the court's review of the Commissioner's factual findings is limited to whether substantial evidence supports those findings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2019). “[T]he threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154. Substantial evidence “means-and means only-‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

         Substantial evidence “is less than a preponderance of the evidence but 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). 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] finding from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime 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).

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

         B. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for the ALJ.

         To 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). 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131(a).[3]

         In determining whether the claimant is disabled, 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. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         The ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC at step four. Hess v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., __ F.3d __, 2019 WL 3418953, at *2 n.2 (3d Cir. July 30, 2019). The RFC is “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. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 359 n.1 (3d Cir. 1999)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1). In making this RFC assessment, the ALJ considers all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any non-severe impairment identified by the ALJ at step two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(2), § 404.1545(a)(2).

         At steps one through four, the claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the existence of a medically determinable impairment that prevents the claimant from 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 the claimant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant number in the national economy that the claimant could perform and 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.

         The ALJ's disability determination must also meet certain basic substantive requirements. Most significantly, the ALJ's decision must provide “a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which [the decision] 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 706-07. “[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. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).

         IV. The ALJ's Decision Denying Mr. ...

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