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Dias v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

AMANDIO FERREIRA DIAS, Plaintiff
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1]Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          Cohn, Magistrate Judge

          MEMORANDUM

          JAMES M. MUNLEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn’s report and recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”) which proposes affirming the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff’s claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 21). The matter is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         Background

         Plaintiff Amandio Ferreira Dias (hereinafter “plaintiff”) began his quest for benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act in May of 2014, when he filed an application for disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 21, R&R at 3). Plaintiff alleges that his disability began on January 3, 2012, in connection with his lower back conditions, right eye blindness, and right hand pain. (Id.) The plaintiff was forty-seven (47) years old on September 30, 2012, the date he was last insured for the purposes of insurance benefits. (Id.) After the Social Security Administration (hereinafter “SSA”) denied plaintiff’s application, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter “ALJ”). (Id.)

         In November of 2015, the ALJ held a hearing where both the plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (Id.) In May of 2016, the ALJ ultimately found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id. at 4). The plaintiff sought further review of his claims in August of 2017, which the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied. (Id.) Thus, the ALJ’s May 2016 decision is the final decision of the Commissioner for the purposes of judicial review.

         Plaintiff initiated the instant action on October 4, 2017, asking us to reverse the decision of the ALJ and award benefits, or remand for a new hearing. (Doc. 1). Specifically, plaintiff seeks reversal on the grounds that the ALJ’s decision to deny his claim for benefits was not supported by substantial evidence and contains errors of law. (Doc. 11). Magistrate Judge Cohn reviewed the record in this case and, on July 8, 2019, filed an R&R recommending that the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff’s benefits be affirmed. (Doc. 21). The plaintiff filed objections to the magistrate judge’s R&R on July 22, 2019. (Doc. 22). On August 5, 2019, the Commissioner filed a response, (Doc. 23), bringing the case to its present posture.

         Jurisdiction

          The court has federal question jurisdiction over this SSA appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has his principal place of business . . . .”).

         Legal Standard

          In disposing of objections to a magistrate judge’s R&R, the district court must make a de novo determination of those portions of the report against which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c); see also Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir. 1983). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. 28 U.S.C.A. § 636(b)(1)(c). The district court judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id.

         In reviewing a Social Security appeal, the court must determine whether “substantial evidence” supports the ALJ’s decision. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g); Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). “[S]ubstantial evidence has been defined as ‘more than a mere scintilla.’” Hagans, 694 F.3d at 292 (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

         The court should not reverse the Commissioner's findings merely because evidence may exist to support the opposite conclusion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute their own conclusions for those of the fact- finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) (indicating that when the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, courts are bound by those findings, even if they would have decided the factual inquiry differently). In an adequately developed factual record, substantial evidence may be “something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo, 383 U.S. at 620.

         Substantial evidence exists only “in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, ” Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981), and “must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). “When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but ‘cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.’” Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (quoting Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993)). The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 204 (3d Cir. 2008). Thus, a reviewing court must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).

         Discussion

         To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual is incapable of engaging in “substantial gainful activity” when “[his] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] 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[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The ALJ evaluates disability benefits claims with a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). This analysis requires the ALJ to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of a “listed impairment”; (4) has the “residual functional capacity” (hereinafter “RFC”) to return to his or her past work; and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v) and 416.920(a)(4).

         Applying the five-step sequential analysis for disability-related findings, the ALJ found at Step 1 that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of January 3, 2012 through his date last insured of September 30, 2012. (Doc. 8-2, Trans. of Proceed. at 13). At Step 2, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. (Id.) The ALJ found that additional impairments alleged by the plaintiff, specifically a left-hand impairment and obesity, were non-severe. (Id. at 13-14). At Step 3, the ALJ found that the plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (Id. at 14).

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff, through the date last insured, had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b) “except that the claimant would have been able to only occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, or crawl, and he ...


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