United States District Court, D. New Jersey
For Plaintiff: ALAN H. POLONSKY, POLONSKY AND POLONSKY, AUDUBON, NJ.
For Defendant: ELIZABETH ROTHSTEIN, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, OFFICE OF THE GENERAL COUNSEL, NEW YORK, NY.
NOEL L. HILLMAN, United States 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 Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income (" Social Security benefits") under Title II and 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 her alleged onset date of disability, September 19, 2007. For the reasons stated below, this Court will reverse the decision and remand the matter for further proceedings.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits, claiming that as of September 19, 2007, her generalized anxiety disorder/post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and severe gastrointestinal disorder have left her completely disabled and unable to work. Prior to that date, Plaintiff worked as a home health aide.
After a hearing before an ALJ, it was determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff appealed the decision. The Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's decision and remanded the matter to the same ALJ for further consideration. The ALJ again determined that Plaintiff was not disabled, and the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's second decision rendering it final. Plaintiff now seeks this Court's review of the ALJ's second denial of her application for benefits.
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. Halter, 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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)(quoting
Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (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, 71 S.Ct. 456, 95 L.Ed. 456 (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 ...