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. 8, 11]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of
their Motions. [ECF Nos. 9, 12]. 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 and denying Defendant’s Motion for
Summary Judgment. The case is remanded to the Commissioner
for further proceedings consistent with the Opinion that
has brought this action for review of the final decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title
II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). On or
about February 3, 2014, Plaintiff applied for DIB. [ECF No.
6-2, at 17]. In her application, she alleged that since July
15, 2011, she had been disabled due to chronic fatigue
syndrome/CFIDS, headaches, and Hashimoto’s Disease.
[ECF Nos. 6-6 (Ex. 1D), 6-7 (Ex. 2E)]. Her date last insured
is December 31, 2016. [ECF No. 6-2, at 19]. The state agency
denied her claims initially, and she requested an
administrative hearing. Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Sharon Seeley held a hearing on April 24,
2017, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [ECF No.
6-2, at 29-55]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and
testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert
was available but did not testify at the hearing.
Id. at 17. In a decision dated July 10, 2017, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or
combination of impairments and, therefore, was not disabled
under the Act. Id. at 18-24. Plaintiff requested
review of the ALJ’s determination by the Appeals
Council, and, on June 4, 2018, the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff’s request for review. Id. at 1-4.
Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies,
Plaintiff filed this action.
parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF
Nos. 8, 11]. 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. § 706.
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. § 404.1520. 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. § 404.1520. 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 CONCLUDING THAT
PLAINTIFF’S IMPAIRMENTS WERE NON-SEVERE
argues that the ALJ erred at step two of the sequential
evaluation process in determining that she did not have any
severe impairments or combination of impairments. [ECF No. 9,
at 4-17]. The step-two inquiry into an impairment’s
severity “is a de minimis screening device to
dispose of groundless claims.” Newell v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir.
2003). As set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522(a), an
impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it
does not significantly limit a claimant’s physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities. The regulations
define basic work activities as the abilities or aptitudes
necessary to do most jobs, including mental activities such
as understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple
instructions; use of judgment; responding appropriately to
supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and
dealing with changes in a routine work setting. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1522(b). Thus, an impairment is not severe if the
evidence establishes only a slight abnormality that has no
more than a minimal effect on an individual’s ability
to work. Newell, 347 F.3d at 546; Mays v.
Barnhart, 78 F. App’x 808, 811 (3d Cir. 2003);
S.S.R. 85-28. Any doubt as to whether the step-two showing
has been made must be resolved in favor of the claimant.
Newell, 347 F.3d at 546-47; see also McCrea v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 361 (3d Cir.
2004) (noting that “because step two is to be rarely
utilized as basis for the denial of benefits . . ., its
invocation is certain to raise a judicial eyebrow”).
Although the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has
commented that the Commissioner’s determination to deny