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Belfon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Delaware

September 28, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



         The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§401-433. The court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Currently before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (Doc. 7, Doc. 9). For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion will be granted, the defendant's motion will be denied, and the instant action will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with this decision.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and “insured, ” that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the “date last insured.” It is undisputed that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2014. (Tr. 17).[3] In order to establish entitlement to DIB, the plaintiff was required to establish that she suffered from a disability on or before that date. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. §404.131(a); see Matullo v. Bowen, 926 F.2d 240, 244 (3d Cir. 1990).

         The plaintiff was born on November 24, 1948, (Tr. 33), and was an individual “closely approaching retirement age”[4]/[5] when the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) rendered his decision in this case. The plaintiff attended college and has past relevant work as a central processing technician and an operating room technician. (Tr. 160, 174). The plaintiff stopped working on September 12, 2012, when she alleges she became disabled and unable to work due to back pain, stroke, memory loss, dizziness and balance issues, high blood pressure and heart murmur. (Tr. 159-60).

         The plaintiff filed a claim for DIB on November 27, 2012, alleging disability commencing on September 12, 2012, due to the foregoing conditions. She was sixty-four (64) years old at the time. (Tr. 19-20, 35, 135-36, 159). The agency denied the plaintiff's application initially on April 19, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 25, 2013. (Tr. 46-75, 79-92). The plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on August 25, 2015. (Tr. 29-45).

         The ALJ issued a decision on September 16, 2015, in which he found that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 17-24). The plaintiff filed a request for review, and on March 3, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5). Since the plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies, she initiated the present action on May 1, 2017, appealing the final decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1).

         The plaintiff raises three grounds in support of her appeal of the ALJ's determination: (1) the ALJ committed errors of law and fact when he found she has no severe mental impairments and included no mental limitations in her RFC, when the record evidence demonstrates the opposite and the ALJ purportedly relied on such evidence; (2) the ALJ violated Third Circuit law and Agency regulation when he failed to account for mental limitations in the residual functional capacity, (“RFC”), assessment that he had earlier assessed the plaintiff within his decision and which are supported by the evidence of record to which he gave weight; and (3) the ALJ erred when he gave great weight to the state agency physician opinions, but arbitrarily included only some of their opined hazard limitations in the RFC, limitations that would preclude the performance of past work according to the vocational expert (“VE”). As relief, the plaintiff seeks to have this court remand her case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


         When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the court must determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence. Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360. (3d Cir. 1999), Johnson, 529 F.3d at 200. It is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an “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.” 42 U.S.C. §432(d)(1)(A). Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which [s]he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [her], or whether [s]he would be hired if [s]he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), ‘work which exists in the national economy' means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A).

         In the present case, there are cross-motions for summary judgment. “In Social Security cases, the substantial evidence standard applies to motions for summary judgment brought pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c).” Antoniolo v. Colvin, 208 F.Supp.3d 587, 595 (D.Del. 2016) (citing Woody v. Sec'y of the Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 859 F.2d 1156, 1159 (3d Cir.1988).


         A five-step evaluation process is used to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. See also Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428. If the Commissioner finds that a plaintiff is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not proceed any further. See 20 C.F.R. ยง404.1520. The Commissioner must sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant's impairment prevents ...

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