United States District Court, D. New Jersey
RICHARD K. POWELL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
RICHARD LOWELL FRANKEL, BROSS & FRANKEL, PA CHERRY HILL, NJ, On behalf of Plaintiff.
MONIKA K. PROCTOR OFFICE OF THE U.S. ATTORNEY SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION NEW YORK, NY, On behalf of 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, denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("Social Security benefits") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The issue before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that there was "substantial evidence" that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time since his alleged onset date of disability, August 28, 2008. For the reasons stated below, this Court will reverse and remand, in part, and affirm in part.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income claiming that as of August 28, 2008, he suffered from depression, arthritis pain in the right side of his body, including his right knee, and residual chronic pain and loss of manual dexterity in his right hand. The middle finger on his right hand had been surgically re-attached after being severed in an accident. Plaintiff completed two years of college and was previously employed as a plumber's helper.
Plaintiff's claim was denied on April 6, 2009, and denied on reconsideration on June 22, 2009. A hearing before the ALJ was held on February 23, 2011, in which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. After the hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was under a disability, but that a substance use disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. The ALJ found that absent substance abuse, the Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act.
Plaintiff appealed the decision. The Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's decision, and upheld it, thus rendering it as final. Plaintiff now seeks this Court's review.
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 Disability Insurance Benefits. 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 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 ...