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Dalpiaz v. Commissioner of Social Security, M.J.)

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 9, 2019





         Plaintiff 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).

         This 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.

         Accordingly, I recommend that the Commissioner's final decision be VACATED and this case be remanded.


         On May 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. Tr. 27).

         On 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).

         On May 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).

         On March 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Admin Tr. 1-6).

         On May 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.

         On 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).

         Plaintiff's 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.


         A. Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of This Court

         When 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).

         “In 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 . . . .”).

         B. Standards Governing the ALJ's Application of The Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process

         To 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).[1] 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. § 404.131(a).

         In 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 ...

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