United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
WILLIAM I. ARBUCKLE U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Jennifer Lee Dalpiaz, an adult individual who resides within
the Middle District of Pennsylvania, seeks judicial review of
the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her applications for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.
Jurisdiction is conferred on this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§405(g) and 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3).
matter has been referred to me to prepare a Report and
Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule
72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After
reviewing the parties' briefs, the Commissioner's
final decision, and the relevant portions of the certified
administrative transcript, I find the Commissioner's
final decision is not supported by substantial evidence.
I recommend that the Commissioner's final decision be
VACATED and this case be remanded.
BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY
18, 2015 and May 19, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed
applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the
Social Security Act. (Admin. Tr. 124-131). In these
applications, Plaintiff alleged she became disabled as of May
2, 2013, when she was forty-four (44) years old, due to the
following conditions: degenerative disc disease and hip
problem. Id. Plaintiff alleges that the combination
of these conditions affects her ability to lift, squat, bend,
stand, reach, walk, sit, kneel, talk, climb stairs, see,
remember, complete tasks, and concentrate. (Admin Tr. 163).
Plaintiff does not have a high school diploma or GED, as 11th
grade is her highest completed grade. (Admin Tr. 27, 44).
Before the onset of her impairments, Plaintiff worked as a
dietitian, worker, cook, and assistant, though the ALJ
concluded that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Admin.
August 6, 2015, Plaintiff's applications were denied at
the initial level of administrative review. (Admin Tr.
95-103). On September 2, 2015, Plaintiff requested an
administrative hearing. (Admin Tr. 104).
24, 2017, Plaintiff, assisted by her counsel, appeared and
testified during a hearing before Administrative Law Judge
Gerard W. Langan (the “ALJ”). (Admin Tr. 36). On
July 20, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying
Plaintiff's applications for benefits. (Admin Tr. 18-28).
On August 15, 2017, Plaintiff requested review of the
ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council of the Office of
Disability Adjudication and Review (“Appeals
Council”). (Admin Tr. 122-23).
March 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review. (Admin Tr. 1-6).
14, 2018, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a
Complaint. (Doc. 1). In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that
the ALJ's decision denying the applications is not
supported by substantial evidence, and improperly applies the
relevant law and regulations. Id. at 1. As relief,
Plaintiff requests that the Court issue an order awarding
benefits, or in the alternative, remand her case to the
Commissioner for a new hearing. Id. at 2.
August 8, 2018, the Commissioner filed an Answer. (Doc. 12).
In the Answer, the Commissioner maintains that the ALJ's
decision denying Plaintiff's applications was made in
accordance with the law and regulations and is supported by
substantial evidence. Id. at 2-3. Along with her
Answer, the Commissioner filed a certified transcript of the
administrative record. (Doc. 13).
Brief (Doc. 14), the Commissioner's Brief (Doc. 15), and
Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 18) have been filed. This matter
is now ripe for decision.
STANDARDS OF REVIEW
Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of This Court
reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a
claimant's application for benefits, this Court's
review is limited to the question of whether the findings of
the final decision-maker are supported by substantial
evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3); Johnson v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Ficca
v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536 (M.D. Pa. 2012).
Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or
considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Pierce v. Underwood,
487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence is less than a
preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A
single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the
ALJ ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a
conflict created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala,
994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). But 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 [the ALJ's decision] from
being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo
v. Fed. Maritime Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).
determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported
by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record
as a whole.” Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d
623, 627 (M.D. Pa. 2003). The question before this Court,
therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but whether
the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled
is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based
upon a correct application of the relevant law. See
Arnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205, at
*1 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 11, 2014) (“[I]t has been held that
an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial
evidence.”) (alterations omitted); Burton v.
Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D. Pa. 1981)
(“The Secretary's determination as to the status of
a claim requires the correct application of the law to the
facts.”); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900
F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review
on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d
at 536 (“[T]he court has plenary review of all legal
issues . . . .”).
Standards Governing the ALJ's Application of The
Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process
receive benefits under the Social Security Act by reason of
disability, a claimant 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); 42
U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1505(a); 20 C.F.R. §
416.905(a). To satisfy this requirement, a claimant
must have a severe physical or mental impairment that makes
it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other
substantial gainful activity that exists in the national
economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. §
1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.905(a). To receive benefits under Title II of the
Social Security Act, a claimant must show that she
contributed to the insurance program, is under retirement
age, and became disabled prior to the date on which he or she
was last insured. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a); 20 C.F.R. §
making this determination at the administrative level, the
ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Under
this process, the ALJ must sequentially determine: (1)
whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a
listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant is able to do his
or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is
able to do any other work, considering his or ...