United States District Court, D. New Jersey
RICHARD LOWELL FRANKEL BROSS & FRANKEL On behalf of
CHEREE CARVER On behalf of Defendant
L.HILLMAN, DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of
the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
regarding the application of Colleen Marie McCartney for
Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act.
42 U.S.C. § 423, et seq. The issue before the Court is
whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
erred in finding that there was “substantial
evidence” that McCartney was not disabled at any time
since her alleged onset date of disability, July 1, 2012. For
the reasons stated below, this Court will reverse that
decision and remand the matter for further consideration
consistent with this Opinion.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
July, 2013, Colleen Marie McCartney protectively filed an
application for DIB,  alleging that she became disabled on July
1, 2012. During the pendency of her application,
McCartney died on May 26, 2015. McCartney's mother, Jan
Becker, substituted as a party to prosecute McCartney's
claim for benefits on August 11, 2016. Following the same
path as the ALJ, this Court will refer to McCartney as
“Plaintiff” because it is her alleged disability
and claim for benefits that is the subject of this appeal.
application for DIB, Plaintiff claimed that she could no
longer work as a registered nurse due to polysubstance use
disorder, history of seizure disorder, and several mental
impairments. Plaintiff's initial claim was denied on
January 15, 2014 and upon reconsideration on January 28,
2014. On November 11, 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing
before an ALJ, which was held on May 2, 2017. The ALJ issued
an unfavorable decision on July 28, 2017. Plaintiff's
Request for Review of Hearing Decision was denied by the
Appeals Council on July 19, 2018, making the ALJ's July
28, 2017 decision final. 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 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)).
evidence 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).
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 Fed.Appx.
130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004).
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).
Standard for DIB
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).
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 ...