United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
N. Bloch United States District Judge
NOW, this 27th day of September, 2019, upon consideration of
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12)
filed in the above-captioned matter on March 1, 2019, IT IS
HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED.
further, upon consideration of Plaintiff’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 9) filed in the above-captioned
matter on January 30, 2019, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said
Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Specifically,
Plaintiff’s Motion is granted to the extent that it
seeks a remand to the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) for further evaluation as set
forth below, and denied in all other respects. Accordingly,
this matter is hereby remanded to the Commissioner for
further evaluation under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) in light of this Order.
Ashley Elizabeth Mekic protectively filed a claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§
401-434, and for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI
of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f, effective
December 17, 2014, claiming that she became disabled on
November 15, 2013, due to her bipolar condition and
depression. (R. 37, 218-221, 222-30, 259). After being denied
initially on May 12, 2015, Plaintiff sought, and obtained, a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) on April 27, 2017. (R. 53-89, 109-12,
113-16, 120-21). In a decision dated October 4, 2017, the ALJ
denied Plaintiff’s request for benefits. (R. 37-48).
The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s
decision on August 21, 2018. (R. 1-4). Plaintiff filed a
timely appeal with this Court, and the parties have filed
cross-motions for summary judgment.
Standard of Review
Judicial review of a social security case is based upon the
pleadings and the transcript of the record. See 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review is limited to
determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct
legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains
substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's
findings of fact. See Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d
589, 592 (3d Cir. 2001) (noting that “‘[t]he
findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any
fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive’” (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)));
Schaudeck v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181
F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999) (stating that the court has
plenary review of all legal issues, and reviews the ALJ's
findings of fact to determine whether they are supported by
evidence” is defined as “‘more than a mere
scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate’” to support a
conclusion. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d
Cir. 1999) (quoting Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900,
901 (3d Cir. 1995)). However, a “‘single piece of
evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the
[Commissioner] ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict
created by countervailing evidence.’” Morales
v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting
Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir.
1983)). “‘Nor is evidence substantial if it is
overwhelmed by other evidence- particularly certain types of
evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)-or if it
really constitutes not evidence but mere
disability is established when the claimant can demonstrate
some medically determinable basis for an impairment that
prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful
activity for a statutory twelve-month period. See
Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir.
2001). “A claimant is considered unable to engage in
any substantial gainful activity ‘only if his physical
or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that
he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy . . . .’” Id. at 39
(quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).
Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations
incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for
determining whether a claimant is under a disability as
defined by the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920. In Step One, the Commissioner must
determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in
substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If so, the
disability claim will be denied. See Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If not, the second
step of the process is to determine whether the claimant is
suffering from a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). “An
impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it
does not significantly limit [the claimant’s] physical
or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1522, 416.922. If the claimant fails
to show that his or her impairments are “severe, "
he or she is ineligible for disability benefits. If the
claimant does have a severe impairment, however, the
Commissioner must proceed to Step Three and determine whether
the claimant’s impairment meets or equals the criteria
for a listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant meets
a listing, a finding of disability is automatically directed.
If the claimant does not meet a listing, the analysis
proceeds to Steps Four and Five.
Four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant
retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
to perform his or her past relevant work, see 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv),
and the claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an
inability to return to this past relevant work, see
Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the
claimant is unable to resume his or her former occupation,
the evaluation then moves to the fifth and final step.
stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner,
who must demonstrate that the claimant is capable of
performing other available work in the national economy in
order to deny a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). In making
this determination, the ALJ should consider the
claimant’s RFC, age, education, and past work
experience. See id. The ALJ must further analyze the
cumulative effect of all the claimant’s impairments in
determining whether he or she is capable of performing work
and is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§
The ALJ's Decision
October 4, 2017 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met
the insured requirements of the Social Security Act through
December 31, 2015. (R. 39). The ALJ then proceeded to apply
the sequential evaluation process when reviewing
Plaintiff’s claim for benefits. In particular, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date of November 15,
2013. (R. 39-40). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff met the
second requirement of the process insofar as she had several
severe impairments, specifically post-traumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”), major depressive disorder,
generalized anxiety disorder, and substance use disorder. (R.
40). The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s alleged limitations
of intellectual disability and Vitamin D deficiency did not
qualify as severe ...