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Neiswonger v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

November 12, 2019

JERRY L. NEISWONGER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1]COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 10 and 13). Both parties have filed briefs in support of their motions. (ECF Nos. 11 and 14). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 13).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed his application alleging he has been disabled since March 15, 2010. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Daniel F. Cusick, held a hearing on June 25, 2014. (ECF No. 6-2, pp. 34-76). On July 25, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 6-2, pp. 18-29). On appeal, this Court issued a decision remanding the case on August 22, 2016. On remand in this case, the Appeals Council vacated the prior order and remanded the case further proceedings. (ECF No. 8-19, p. 40).

         On July 13, 2017, the ALJ held a second hearing. (ECF No. 8-18). On October, 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a second decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 8-17, pp. 19-30). After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 10 and 13). The issues are now ripe for 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). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Additionally, 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 he 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. §423(d)(1)(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(a). 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., appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his 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 he is unable to return to his 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. Scope of Review on Remand

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ exceeded the scope of this Court's August 22, 2016, order remanding the case. (ECF No. 11, pp. 13-16). To that end, Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ was limited to addressing the single issue on which the case was remanded and nothing more. (ECF No. 11, p. 14). Contrary to Plaintiff's position, such is not the case. According to the Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Law Manual (HALLEX), “[i]f the Appeals Council (AC) remands the case to the hearing level after a court remand, it generally vacates the entire administrate law judge (ALJ) decision, and the ALJ must consider all pertinent issues de novo.” HALLEX I-2-8-18(A). On remand in this case, the Appeals Council vacated the prior order and remanded the case for further proceedings. (ECF No. 8-19, p. 40). Additionally, the regulations provide that on remand from a federal court, “[a]ny issues relating to your claim may be considered by the administrative law judge whether or not they were raised in the administrative proceedings leading to the final decision in you case.” 20 C.F.R. §404.983. In this case the ALJ properly took new evidence and reexamined all of the evidence de novo and made new findings as it related to Plaintiff's application. (ECF No. 8-17, pp. 19-30). In doing so, the new ALJ was required to reweigh all of the opinion evidence in accordance with the rules and regulations. The ALJ did exactly that. Id. Thus, I find the new ALJ's decision did not exceed its scope of review in reviewing, de novo, Dr. Guie's opinion evidence.[2] Therefore, remand is not warranted on this basis.

         Plaintiff further argues that there is no medical evidence to support a new finding that Plaintiff had the ability to lift, carry, and stand/walk. (ECF No. 11, p. 15). That that end, Plaintiff specifically submits that there were no additional medical records offered into evidence after the July 25, 2014 hearing. Id. As discussed above, regardless of the date of the medical evidence, the ALJ was required to review all of the evidence de novo. In so doing, the ALJ properly considered the opinion evidence of Dr. Leong dated December 19, 2016, [3] which supports a finding that Plaintiff had the ability to lift, ...


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