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Aimetti v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville Division

March 28, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge by consent of the parties and order of reference [Doc. 15]. Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) application under the Social Security Act, Title II (the “Act”) was denied after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). This action is for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision per 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Each party filed a dispositive motion [Docs. 16 & 18] with a supporting memorandum [Docs. 17 & 19].


         A. Choice of Law

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a civil action seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner “shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides.” The administrative steps in this matter, including the issuance of the decision, were conducted in New Jersey because Plaintiff, Debbie J. Aimetti (“Aimetti”) resided in the state. (Doc. 11, Transcript pp. 16, 35) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). However, at the time she filed her Complaint, Aimetti was a Sullivan County, Tennessee resident required to file her action in this judicial district.

         Aimetti contends that this Court must apply Third Circuit law and notes this Court determined in prior cases that the law of the circuit in which the administrative matter occurred is applicable. The Commissioner does not offer argument in response, but clearly maintains Sixth Circuit law controls as the Commissioner's dispositive motion relies on Sixth Circuit authority.

         The Sixth Circuit has not addressed the issue of the applicable law in a situation such as the one presented here. Several district courts have addressed the issue. See Powell v. Colvin, No. 5:12-cv-157-LLK, 2014 WL 689721, at *1 (W.D. Ky. Feb. 20, 2014) (applying Ninth Circuit case law to administrative decision issued in Washington) (citing Pierce v. Colvin, No. 7:12-cv-129-D, 2013 WL 3326716, at *3 (E.D. N.C. July 1, 2013); Mannella v. Astrue, No. CIV 06-469-TUC-CKJ (BPV), 2008 WL 2428869, at *1 (D. Ariz. June 12, 2008) (applying Tenth Circuit case law to administrative decision issued in Colorado). In reliance on many of these cases, this Court previously addressed the question of applicable law in Ellis v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 2:15-cv-253 (E.D.T.N. 2015) and Reece v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 2:11-cv-00378 (E.D.T.N. 2011) and determined that the law of the circuit in in which the administrative matter took place is applicable. Thus, this Court will apply Third Circuit law.

         B. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” is evidence that is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the challenged conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A court may not review the case de novo or reweigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

         A claimant must be under a “disability” as defined by the Act to be eligible for benefits. “Disability” includes physical and mental impairments that are “medically determinable” and so severe as to prevent the claimant from (1) performing her past job and (2) engaging in “substantial gainful activity” that is available in the regional or national economies. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a).

         A five-step sequential evaluation applies in disability determinations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The complete review poses five questions:

1. Has the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2. Does the claimant suffer from one or more severe impairments?
3. Do the claimant's severe impairments, alone or in combination, meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments (the “Listings”), 20 C.F.R. Subpart P, Appendix 1?
4. Considering the claimant's [Residual Functional Capacity], can he or she perform his or her past relevant work?
5. Assuming the claimant can no longer perform his or her past relevant work -- and also considering the claimant's age, education, past work experience, and RFC -- do significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform?

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant has the burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving the existence of a disability under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). See Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). The Commissioner has the burden to establish the claimant's ability to work at step five. Id.


         A. Procedural History

         Aimetti filed a DIB application on January 22, 2013, alleging impairments she believed to be disabling. She alleged an onset date of May 15, 2010. (Tr. 16). Aimetti had insured status through September 2017. (Tr. 18). Her claim was initially denied in April 2013 and upon reconsideration in July 2013. (Tr. 16). An ALJ conducted a hearing on June 22, 2015. (Tr. 35-69).

         The ALJ followed the five-step analysis in evaluating the claims. The ALJ found Aimetti had severe medical impairments, but was not disabled. The findings were as follows:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2017;
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2010, the alleged onset date (20 ...

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