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Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 6, 2019

KATHRYN VINNETTE THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MICHAEL JOSEPH BROWN WOLF & BROWN, LLC On behalf of Plaintiff

          STEPHEN M. BALL 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”)[1] under Title II of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423, et seq. The issue before the Court is whether the Appeals Council erred in finding that there was “substantial evidence” that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time since her alleged onset date of disability, December 15, 2012. For the reasons stated below, this Court will reverse that decision and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On July 30, 2014, Plaintiff, Kathryn Vinnette Thomas, filed an application for DIB, alleging that she became disabled on December 15, 2012. Plaintiff claims that she can no longer work because of her severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, and osteoarthritis.[2]

         After Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on June 29, 2017. On August 7, 2017, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Plaintiff to be disabled. On its own motion, the Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's decision, and on May 17, 2018, reversed the ALJ, determining that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council's decision serves as the final decision of the Commissioner, and Plaintiff brings this civil action for review of the Commissioner's decision.[3]

         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 social security 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 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 Fed.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. 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 (D.N.J. 1981).

         B. Standard for DIB

         The 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 her physical or mental impairments are of such severity that she is not only unable to perform her past relevant work, but cannot, given her 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 she lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for her, or whether she would be hired if she applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B) (emphasis added).

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations[4] 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, she will be found “not disabled.”
2. If the claimant does not suffer from a “severe impairment, ” she will be found “not disabled.”
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 she has done in the past (“past relevant work”) despite the severe impairment, she will be found “not disabled.”
5. Finally, the Commissioner will consider the claimant's ability to perform work (“residual functional capacity”), age, education, and past work experience to determine whether or not she is capable of performing other work which exists in the national economy. If she is incapable, she will be found “disabled.” If she is capable, she will be found “not disabled.”

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f). Entitlement to benefits is therefore dependent upon a finding that the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.

         This five-step process involves a shifting burden of proof. See Wallace v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 722 F.2d 1150, 1153 (3d Cir. 1983). In the first four steps of the analysis, the burden is on the claimant to prove every element of her claim by a preponderance of the evidence. See id. In the final step, the Commissioner bears the burden of proving that work is available for the Plaintiff: “Once a claimant has proved that he is unable to perform his former job, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is some other kind of substantial gainful employment he is able to perform.” Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); see Olsen v. Schweiker, 703 F.2d 751, 753 (3d Cir. 1983).

         C. Analysis

         The decision of the Appeals Council serves as the final decision of the Commissioner, seesupra note 3, and accordingly, the standard for this Court's review of an Appeals Council's decision is the same as the review of the ALJ's decision - that is, a determination as to whether the Appeals Council's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Because the Appeals Council adopted the majority of the ...


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