United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MICHAEL L. LEWIS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Schwab Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
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).
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.
Court refers to the administrative transcript provided by the
Commissioner. See docs. 12-1 to 12-11. 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.
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.
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.
Substantial Evidence Review-the Role of This Court.
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)).
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).
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.
Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation for
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. §
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. §
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).
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.
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).
The ALJ's Decision Denying Mr. ...