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Conklin v. Commissioner of Social Security

June 30, 2010

DONNA J. CONKLIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying the application of Plaintiff, Donna J. Conklin, for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. and Social Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. The issue before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") allowed her to perform work which exists in the national economy. For the reasons stated below, this Court will affirm the ALJ's decision.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff, a forty-eight year old woman, had been employed off and on in various occupations, including store laborer, caterer, helper, deli cutter/slicer, kitchen helper, warehouse worker, vendor, hand packager, palletizer, informal waiter, and fast food worker, until on or around July 26, 2005. (R. at 25, 26.) On May 26, 2006, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI, alleging an inability to work since July 26, 2005 due to a possibly ruptured herniated disc or pinched nerve in the neck. (Id. at 14, 59-61, 77.) This application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 31-36, 38-40.)

On September 5, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Request for a Hearing before an ALJ. (Id. at 41.) A hearing was held on August 7, 2008 before ALJ Christopher K. Bullard. (Id. at 334-369.) On September 11, 2008, ALJ Bullard issued his decision denying Plaintiff's application for DIB and SSI. (Id. at 14-26.) As a preliminary matter, ALJ Bullard found that Plaintiff met the non-disability requirements for DIB set forth in Section 216(I) of the Social Security Act and was insured for benefits through the date of this decision. (Id. at 25.) Then, performing the five step evaluation pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, ALJ Bullard found first that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 26, 2005, the alleged date of disability onset. (Id.) With respect to step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from post traumatic cervical sprain, cervical radiculopathy with herniated disc, cervical spondylosis, and status post cervical fusion that was "severe." (Id.) At step three, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medical conditions, although severe, did not meet the requirements of any impairments on the Listing. (Id.) At step four, the ALJ then found that Plaintiff's impairment prevented her from returning to her past relevant work. (Id. at 26.) At step five, the ALJ then found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy, including work as an office helper, information clerk, and routing clerk, and was therefore "not disabled." (Id.) Finally, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a "disability," as defined in the Act, at any time through the date of the decision. (Id.) Thus, the ALJ held that Plaintiff was not entitled to DIB and was ineligible for SSI. (Id.)

With respect to Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that she retained the ability to perform the exertional demands of light work, or work which requires maximum lifting of twenty pounds and frequent lifting of ten pounds. (Id. at 25.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff was additionally limited in that she was able to lift/carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally, can sit for six hours in an eight hour workday and one hour continuously, can stand for four hours in and eight hour workday and thirty minutes continuously, can walk for two hours in an eight hour workday and twenty minutes continuously, and can frequently use her left (non-dominant) arm and hand to handle/feel and reach horizontally and vertically. (Id.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff was a "younger individual" with a semi-skilled work history, but with no transferable skills and "limited" education. (Id. at 26.)

Plaintiff filed a Request for Review by the Appeals Council on October 28, 2008. (Id. at 9.) That request was denied by the Appeals Council on February 5, 2009. (Id. at 3-6.) Thereafter, on March 31, 2009, Plaintiff filed the instant action.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny a complainant's application for DIB and SSI. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995). A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual decisions where they are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992). Substantial evidence means more than "a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. V. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. The inquiry is not whether the reviewing court would have made the same determination, but whether the Commissioner's conclusion was reasonable. See Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).

A reviewing court has a duty to review the evidence in its totality. See Daring v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1984). "[A] court must 'take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'" Schonewolf v. Callahan, 972 F. Supp. 277, 284 (D.N.J. 1997) (quoting Willbanks v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. V. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)).

The Commissioner "must adequately explain in the record his reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent evidence." Ogden v. Bowen, 677 F. Supp 273, 278 (M.D. Pa. 1987) (citing Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581 (3d Cir. 1986)). The Third Circuit has held that an "ALJ must review all pertinent medical evidence and explain his conciliations and rejections." Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d Cir. 2000). Similarly, an ALJ must also consider and weigh all of the non-medical evidence before him. Id. (citing Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 871, 873 (3d Cir. 1983)); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 707 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Third Circuit has held that access to the Commissioner's reasoning is indeed essential to a meaningful court review:

Unless the [Commissioner] has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.

Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1978). Although an ALJ, as the fact finder, must consider and evaluate the medical evidence presented, Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 42, "[t]here is no requirement that the ALJ discuss in its opinion every tidbit of evidence included in the record," Hur v. Barnhart, 94 Fed. Appx. 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004). In terms of judicial review, a district court is not "empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder." Williams, 970 F.2d at 1182. Moreover, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court is entitled to satisfy itself that the Commissioner arrived at his decision by ...


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