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Anderson v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 25, 2019

ELIZABETH SUSAN ANDERSON, 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. 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 follows.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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].[2] 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.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 8, 11]. 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. § 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). 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 CONCLUDING THAT PLAINTIFF’S IMPAIRMENTS WERE NON-SEVERE

         Plaintiff 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 an ...


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