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Bryant v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 28, 2019



          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.

         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.14 and 16). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 12) and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 15).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for supplemental security income pursuant to the Social Security Act. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Helen Valkavich, held a hearing on February 1, 2017. (ECF No. 8-3). On March 24, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 8-2, pp. 14-24).

         After exhausting administrative remedies thereafter, Plaintiff filed this action. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 12 and 15). The issues are now ripe for review.


         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). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Additionally, 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 he 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. §423(d)(1)(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. §404.1520(a). 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., appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity (“RFC”).[2] 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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. Record not discussed

         In her amended brief, Plaintiff argues that this case should be remanded because the ALJ failed to mention, discuss or analyze a CT scan that indicates Plaintiff suffers from chiari malformation of the brainstem. (ECF No. 14, p. 1, n.1). Plaintiff submits that symptoms associated with chiari malformation of the brainstem are consistent with her testimony. Id. Along those same lines, Plaintiff argues that limitations associated therewith should have been included with the hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert (“VE”). Id. Therefore, Plaintiff seeks remand on this basis. Id. After a review of the record, I agree.

         At the hearing in this matter on February 1, 2017, the ALJ and counsel discussed the documents that comprised the record evidence in the case. (ECF No. 8-3). Clearly, there was confusion as to which documents had been filed. Id. After resolution, the ALJ asked counsel if he was aware of any other evidence that was not currently in the file. Id. at p. 7. Counsel responded that “[e]verything that has been submitted is everything that I'm aware of….And to my understanding the record is complete.” Id. Then, at the end of the hearing, the ALJ closed the record and counsel did not object or ask that the record be held open for the submission of additional evidence. Id. at p. 67. Nonetheless, on February 21, 2017, the medical record containing the CT was filed as part of the record evidence at Exhibit B11F. (ECF No. 8-1, p. 2; No. 8-14, pp. 19-24). Thereafter, on ...

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