United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT
Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge.
before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF
Nos. 12 and 15]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of
their Motions. [ECF Nos. 13 and 16]. After careful
consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on
my Opinion set forth below, Defendant's Motion [ECF No.
15] is denied and Plaintiff's Motion [ECF No. 12] is
has brought this action for review of the final decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title
XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”).
Plaintiff applied for SSI on or about August 22, 2014. [ECF
No. 8-8 (Exs. 2D, 3D)]. In her application, she alleged that
she was disabled due to panic attacks, agoraphobia, anxiety,
depression, PTSD, and bipolar, and that she had been unable
to work since April 10, 2009. [ECF No. 8-9 (Ex. 2E)].
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David Romeo held
a hearing on April 13, 2017, at which Plaintiff was
represented by counsel. [ECF No. 8-3]. Plaintiff participated
in the hearing by telephone and testified on her own behalf.
Id. Plaintiff's mother, Cheryl Toth, and a
vocational expert were present at the hearing and testified.
Id. at 50-64. In a decision dated May 12, 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. 8-2,
at 10-20]. On June 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 1-3.
Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies,
Plaintiff filed this action.
parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF
Nos. 12 and 15]. 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). Regardless of “the meaning
of ‘substantial' in other contexts, the threshold
for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.”
Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (U.S.
2019). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more
than a mere scintilla.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55
F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “It means -
and means only - such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154. 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, however, the district court must
review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §
eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must
demonstrate that she 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 her from performing her
past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of
performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform
any other work which exists in the national economy, in light
of her 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 she is unable to return to her 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 Making His Mental RFC
two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had
numerous severe impairments, including morbid obesity,
tobacco use disorder, major depressive disorder, recurrent,
generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder with
agoraphobia, Cluster B personality traits, and a history of
polysubstance disorder (marijuana, heroin, and cocaine). [ECF
No. 8-2, at 12]. 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 13-14. The ALJ further found that
Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all
exertional levels, except with the following nonexertional
limitations: she could understand, remember, and carry out
simple instructions, and make simple work related decisions;
she could tolerate a low level of work pressure, defined as