United States District Court, D. New Jersey
JOHANNA E. BAYERS on behalf of ALLISON BAYERS, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
Robert Anthony Petruzzelli, Esquire, Jacobs, Schwalbe & Petruzzelli, PC, Woodcrest Pavilion, Ten Melrose Avenue, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Attorney for Plaintiff.
Paul J. Fishman, Esquire, United States Attorney, Tomasina DiGrigoli, Esquire, Special Assistant United States Attorney Social Security Administration, Office of the General Counsel New York, New York Attorney for Defendant.
NOEL L. HILLMAN, District Judge.
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, determining that Plaintiff Allison Bayers, a minor child, is not eligible for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act because she is not disabled. Plaintiff argues on appeal that substantial evidence exists in the administrative record to support a finding of disability and asks this Court to reverse the Commissioner's final decision and enter an award of summary judgment in her favor. Alternatively, Plaintiff asks the Court to remand this case. The issue before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments that would qualify her for benefits, and that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings. For the reasons stated below, this Court finds that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and will affirm that decision.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), depression/mood disorder, and bipolar disorder, was a school-aged child (eight years old) when her mother applied for SSI benefits for her on January 15, 2010. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a hearing before the ALJ was held on May 3, 2011. The May 3, 2011 hearing was continued to August 23, 2011 so that Plaintiff could seek representation, and the continued hearing took place on August 23, 2011 as scheduled. The ALJ issued his decision denying Plaintiff benefits on September 8, 2011, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on November 30, 2012, and the ALJ's decision became final. Plaintiff now appeals the ALJ's decision to this Court.
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 SSI. Nichols v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 404 F.Appx. 701, 704 (3d Cir. 2010). A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is 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 nonmedical 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 F.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 application ...