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Krill v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 21, 2019

CASSANDRA LYNN KRILL, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

          Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge.

         SYNOPSIS

         Pending 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 granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 12 and 15]. The issues are now ripe for my review.

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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. § 706.

         To be 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. 1986).

         The 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). Id.

         A 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).

         B. Whether the ALJ Erred in Making His Mental RFC Determination

         At step 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 ...


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