United States District Court, D. New Jersey
H. POLONSKY POLONSKY AND POLONSKY, On behalf of Plaintiff.
CATHERINE ELISABETH HAMILTON SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
OFFICE OF THE GENERAL COUNSEL, On behalf of Defendant.
L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.
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”) under Title II 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 March 1, 2005, but amended during the
administrative process to June 10, 2008. For the reasons
stated below, this Court will reverse and remand the matter
for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
August 11, 2012, Plaintiff, Melissa Hope Swanson, applied for
benefits alleging disability since March 1, 2005, later
amended to June 10, 2008. Plaintiff's impairments include
cervical degenerative disc disease, lumbar degenerative disc
disease, right rotator cuff tendinopathy, and hypothyroidism.
Plaintiff previously worked as an accounts receivable clerk.
September 28, 2012, her claim was denied at the initial level
of administrative review. On January 29, 2013, it was denied
upon reconsideration. On June 5, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing
at Plaintiff's request. Plaintiff was represented by
counsel, and a vocational expert testified.
26, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not
disabled. On November 30, 2015, the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Having
exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff brings this
civil action for review of the Commissioner's decision.
Standard of Review
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.
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)).
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
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. App'x
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.
However, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a
reviewing court is entitled to satisfy itself that the
Commissioner arrived at his decision by application of the
proper legal standards. Sykes, 228 F.3d at 262;
Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir.
1983); Curtin v. Harris, 508 F.Supp. 791, 793
Standard for Disability Insurance Benefits
Social Security Act defines “disability” for
purposes of an entitlement to a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits 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. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Under
this definition, a Plaintiff qualifies as disabled only if
his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that
he is not only unable to perform his past relevant work, but
cannot, given his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other type 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 exists for him, or whether he would be
hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B)
Commissioner has promulgated regulations for determining
disability that require application of a five-step sequential
analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. This
five-step process is summarized as follows:
1. If the claimant currently is engaged in substantial
gainful employment, he will be found “not
2. If the claimant does not suffer from a “severe
impairment, ” he will be found “not
3. If the severe impairment meets or equals a listed
impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1
and has lasted or is expected to last for a
continuous period of at least twelve months, the claimant
will be found “disabled.”
4. If the claimant can still perform work he has done in the
past (“past relevant work”) despite the severe
impairment, he will ...