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Beach v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

November 21, 2019

TRAVIS D. BEACH, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

          Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge

         SYNOPSIS

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 8, 11]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 9, 12]. 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 and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). On or about May 5, 2015, Plaintiff applied for DIB. [ECF No. 6-7 (Ex. 3D)]. In his application, he alleged that since February 29, 2012, he has been disabled due to degenerative disc disease and other spinal conditions. [ECF No. 6-8 (Ex. 3E)]. His date last insured is December 31, 2017. [ECF No. 6-2 at 15].[2] The state agency denied his claims initially, and he requested an administrative hearing. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William J. Bezego held an initial video hearing on May 18, 2017, after which he ordered Plaintiff to undergo a consultative orthopedic examination. [ECF No. 6-2, at 28-51]. After the consultative exam, Plaintiff requested a supplemental hearing which was held on August 10, 2017. [ECF No. 6-3]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. at 62-69. In a decision dated August 24, 2017, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. [ECF No. 6-2, at 12-21]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, but the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. [ECF No. 6-2]. Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 8 & 11]. The issues are now ripe for my 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). Regardless of “the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (U.S. 2019). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “It means - and means only - such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154. 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. § 1382(a)(3)(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. 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, app. 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. WHETHER THE ALJ PROPERLY EVALUATED THE MEDICAL OPINION EVIDENCE

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease, obesity, and arthritis, right knee. [ECF No. 6-2, at 15]. He then found that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except that he requires a sit/stand option every 30 minutes. [ECF No. 6-2, at 15-20]. The ALJ ultimately concluded that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs ...


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