The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Garrett E. Brown, Jr.
This matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiff Pamela Nicholson's appeal of the adverse October 16, 2006 administrative decision issued by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dennis O'Leary, which denied Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act") for the time period June 30, 2000--December 30, 2003. The Court has jurisdiction over this Social Security Appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and has considered the parties' submissions without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78. For the reasons that follow, the Court will vacate the October 16 decision and remand for further administrative proceedings.
Plaintiff originally filed an application for DIB on March 20, 2000, alleging disability in the form of a displaced cervical disc at C5-C6 that was caused by a car accident in February 1999. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff underwent an anterior cervical discectomy operation at vertebrae C4-5 and C5-6 on March 29, 2000. Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels, but after a hearing on January 23, 2002, ALJ O'Leary issued a partially favorable decision on May 17, 2002 ("2002 administrative decision"), granting Plaintiff's application for DIB for the period March 12, 1999--June 29, 2000, but denying DIB effective June 30, 2000, finding that Plaintiff had medically improved by this date and was no longer disabled. (See Tr. 15--25.) The Appeals Council denied review in March 2004. Plaintiff appealed, and this Court reversed the 2002 administrative decision via consent order on July 29, 2005, and remanded the case to the Commissioner of Social Security for further administrative action.
On remand, the Appeals Council affirmed the favorable portion of the 2002 administrative decision (granting benefits from March 1999--June 2000) and vacated the adverse portion (denying benefits from June 30, 2000, forward), with instructions that the ALJ reassess disability for that period, in light of a new application for DIB that Plaintiff filed on June 25, 2004. Pursuant to the Appeals Council's remand order, the ALJ held a second hearing on September 6, 2006, and on October 16, 2006 ("October 2006 administrative decision"), ALJ O'Leary issued a second partially favorable decision that granted benefits beginning December 31, 2003,*fn1 but denied benefits from June 30, 2000--December 30, 2003, again finding that Plaintiff had medically improved and was no longer disabled during this period. The Appeals Council again denied review of Plaintiff's claim on December 8, 2009, and Plaintiff filed the instant appeal with this Court on February 9, 2010.
Plaintiff only appeals the adverse portion of the October 2006 administrative decision, which denied benefits for the time period June 30, 2000--December 30, 2003, on the grounds of medical improvement. Plaintiff advances three primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ failed to perform a task-by-task comparison with Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) and her prior work as a paralegal, as required by the Appeals Council's remand order; (2) that the ALJ's RFC determination contradicted the medical evidence of record; and (3) that the ALJ failed to evaluate Plaintiff's subjective claims of pain under the guidance of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. Cumulatively, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, and Plaintiff requests that this Court either award the benefits denied or remand for a new hearing. The Commissioner of Social Security responds: (1) that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's denial of benefits from June 30, 2000--December 30, 2003 on the basis of medical improvement; (2) that the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain; and (3) that the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff could return to her past relevant work during this time period.
The Act provides that the "findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence exists when there is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, this Court is bound by those findings,"even if [it] would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir.2001) (citing Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir.1999)). However, the "determination of the existence vel non of substantial evidence is not merely a quantitative exercise. 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." Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir.1983). The ALJ must analyze all the evidence and explain the weight he has given to probative exhibits. Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir.1978) (internal citation omitted). As the Third Circuit has held, access to the ALJ's reasoning is indeed essential to a meaningful court review. Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 42. The district court is not "empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder." Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir.1992) (citing Early v. Heckler, 743 F.2d 1002, 1007 (3d Cir.1984)).
B. Legal Framework of the Act
A plaintiff may not receive benefits under the Act unless he or she first meets statutory insured status requirements. A plaintiff must be disabled, which is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual is not disabled unless "his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do her previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives or whether a specific job vacancy exist for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
Regulations promulgated under the Act establish a five-step process for an ALJ's evaluation of a claimant's disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In the first step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is working and the work is a substantial gainful activity, her application for disability benefits is automatically denied. Id. If the claimant is not employed, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" or "combination of impairments." Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A claimant who does not have a "severe impairment" is not disabled. Id. Third, if the impairment is found to be severe, the ALJ determines whether the impairment meets or is equal to those impairments listed in Appendix 1 of this subpart ("the Listing"). Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled, and the evaluation ends. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d). If it is determined that the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ proceeds to step four, which requires a determination of: (1) the claimant's capabilities despite limitations imposed by an impairment ("residual functional capacity," or "RFC"); and (2) whether those limitations prevent the claimant from returning to work performed in the past ("past relevant work"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is found capable of performing her previous work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If the claimant is no longer able to perform her prior line of work, the evaluation must continue to the last step. The fifth step requires a determination of whether the ...