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Milevoi v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 4, 2019

MICHELLE MILEVOI o/b/o M.E.M., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security,


          Susan E. Schwab, Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction.

         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Michelle Milevoi seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her minor daughter's claim for supplemental security income benefits. Because the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, we recommend that the court vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand the case to the Commissioner.

         II. Background and Procedural History.

         We refer to the transcript provided by the Commissioner. See docs. 8-1 to 8-13.[2] On March 24, 2015, Ms. Milevoi protectively applied for supplemental security income benefits on behalf of her minor daughter M.E.M., alleging that M.E.M. has been disabled since July 1, 2014. Admin. Tr. at 121, 145-54. After the Commissioner denied the claim at the initial level of administrative review, Ms. Milevoi requested an administrative hearing. Id. at 125, 129-31. On July 20, 2017, Ms. Milevoi with the assistance of counsel, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Edward Brady. Id. at 87-112.

         The ALJ determined that M.E.M. has not been disabled since March 24, 2015, the date of her application, and so he denied her benefits. Id. at 65. Ms. Milevoi appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on September 18, 2018. Id. at 1-6. This makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this court.

         In November of 2018, Ms. Milevoi began this action by filing a complaint claiming that the ALJ's decision “is not in supported by substantial evidence” and “contains errors of law.” Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 14-15. She requests that the court reverse the Commissioner's decision and award her benefits or, in the alternative, remand the case to the Commissioner for a new hearing. Id. at § V. The Commissioner filed an answer and a certified transcript of the administrative proceedings. Docs. 7, 8. The parties have filed briefs, and this matter is ripe for decision. Docs. 15, 18, 19.

         III. Legal Standards.

         A. Substantial Evidence Review-the Role of This Court.

         When reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a claimant's application for benefits, “the court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner.” Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536 (M.D. Pa. 2012). But the court's review of the Commissioner's factual findings is limited to whether substantial evidence supports those findings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2019). “[T]he threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154. Substantial evidence “means-and means only-‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Consol. Edison Co. of New York v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

         Substantial evidence “is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla.” Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995). 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] finding 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 M.E.M. is disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled and whether the Commissioner correctly applied the relevant law.

         B. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation.

         To receive supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, a claimant under the age of eighteen must demonstrate that he or she has “a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.906. The ALJ follows a three-step sequential-evaluation process to determine whether a child claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. Under this process, the ALJ must sequentially determine: (1) whether the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the child has an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe; and (3) if so, whether the child's severe impairment (or combination of impairments) meets, medically equals, or functionally equals one of the disability listings. Id.

         If the analysis proceeds to step three, the ALJ must determine whether a child's impairment meets, medically equals, or functionally equals a disability listing. Id. Whether a child's impairment functionally equals a disability listing is analyzed in terms of six domains of functioning. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b). “These domains are broad areas of functioning intended to capture all of what a child can or cannot do.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). The six domains are: (1) acquiring and using information; (2) attending and completing tasks; (3) interacting and relating with others; (4) moving about and manipulating objects; (5) caring for oneself; and (6) health and physical wellbeing. Id. When determining whether an impairment is functionally equivalent to ...

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