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Stevenson v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 7, 2020

TERRI LEE STEVENSON Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DONETTA W. AMBROSE, UNITED STATES SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE

         Synopsis

         Plaintiff Terri Lee Stevenson (“Stevenson”) applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) in December 2016. (R. 17) She alleged an onset of disability based upon both physical and mental impairments beginning in April of 2016. (R. 17) She was represented by counsel at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), during which both she and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified. (R. 17) Ultimately, the ALJ granted benefits for the period between April 25, 2016 through October 3, 2017, but denied benefits thereafter based upon medical improvement. (R. 20-28) Stevenson subsequently filed a Request for Review with the Appeals Council and submitted additional evidence. The Appeals Council denied the request for review. She then filed this appeal. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. 13 and 15.

         Opinion

         1. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)(7). Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records on which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). 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). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is “not merely a quantitative exercise.” Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians).” Id. 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); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420.

         A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196-7, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 WL 2036692, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ issued a partially favorable decision. More specifically, at step one, the ALJ found that Stevenson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 25, 2016, the onset date. (R. 20) At step two, the ALJ concluded that, from April 25, 2016 through October 3, 2017, Stevenson suffers from the following severe impairments: heart palpitations, hypertension, back pain, sacral insufficiency fracture, Barrett's esophagitis, hiatal hernia, gastroparesis with vomiting, migraine cephalgia, cervical spondylolisthesis, mild degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, and osteoporosis. (R. 20). At step three, the ALJ determined that, from April 25, 2016 through October 3, 2017, Stevenson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 21) Between steps three and four, the ALJ decided that, from April 25, 2016 through October 3, 2017, Stevenson had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with certain restrictions. (R. 21-23) The ALJ further found that, during that same period, Stevenson was unable to perform any past relevant work and was an individual closely approaching advanced age. (R. 23) Ultimately, at the fifth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that, during that same time frame, considering Stevenson's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed. (R. 23-24) Consequently, he found Stevenson to be under a disability as defined by the SSA from April 25, 2016 through October 3, 2017. (R. 24)

         The ALJ then determined that a medical improvement occurred as of October 4, 2017 and that the improvement increased her residual functional capacity. (R. 25) As a result, beginning on October 4, 2017, Stevenson was able to perform the full range of light work and there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. Therefore, Stevenson's disability ended on October 4, 2017. (R. 28)

         III. Discussion

         1. Due Process Violation

         As stated above, Stevenson requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council will review a case in limited circumstances, including, where there is additional evidence that is new, material, relates to the period at issue, and there is a reasonable probability that the evidence would change the outcome of the ALJ's decision. Additionally, the claimant must demonstrate that he/she had “good cause” for not submitting the evidence earlier. 20 C.F.R. 416, 1470(a)(4), 404.970(a)(4). Here, Stevenson proffered an additional 450 pages of medical records to the Appeals Council in connection with her request for review, presumably urging that new evidence would change the outcome of the case.

         The Appeals Council denied the request for review. (R. 1) It explained that the additional evidence did “not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of this decision.”[1] (R. 2) The Appeals Council omitted the materials from the official administrative record. (R. 2) Stevenson alleges that the failure to include such materials gives rise to a due process violation because it prevents this ...


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