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Curry v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 2, 2017

HARRIET CURRY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          RICHARD LOWELL FRANKEL BROSS & FRANKEL, PA, On behalf of Plaintiff.

          DINA WHITE GRIFFIN, RACHEL E. LICAUSI, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, OFFICE OF THE GENERAL COUNSEL, On behalf of Defendant.

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), regarding Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) 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, originally October 1, 2002, but amended during the administrative process to July 27, 2006. For the reasons stated below, this Court will reverse that decision and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff, Harriett Curry, protectively filed an application for benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI, of the Social Security Act on April 20, 2010, alleging an onset date of disability beginning October 1, 2002. The claim was denied on October 6, 2010. A Request for Reconsideration was timely submitted on December 4, 2010, and the claim was denied again January 3, 2011.

         A written Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was filed on March 9, 2011. Plaintiff, represented by different counsel, appeared at the Pennsauken hearing office for a hearing that was held before an ALJ on March 2, 2012. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her onset date to July 27, 2006.

         On March 19, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The ALJ determined that despite Plaintiff's severe impairments of disorders of the cervical and lumbar spine and allergic rhinitis, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform her past work as an administrative assistant. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of hearing Decision with the Appeals Council, which subsequently issued an order remanding the case to the ALJ. Represented by her current counsel, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a second hearing before ALJ Mandry on March 28, 2014.

         On May 27, 2014, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision. The ALJ came to the same ultimate conclusion as her previous decision. Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council on July 31, 2014. The Appeals Council issued an Order, dated August 11, 2015, wherein the Request for Review was denied. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's Request for Review on August 11, 2015. Plaintiff thereafter commenced the present action, requesting judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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 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 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 ...


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