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Keegan v. Heckler

September 24, 1984


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Gibbons and Garth, Circuit Judges and Teitelbaum, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Gibbons


GIBBONS, Circuit Judge

Joyce E. Keegan appeals from a summary judgment in favor of the Secretary of Health and Human Services in her action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) (1982), for a review of a denial of disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Keegan contends that the district court erred in its interpretation and application of the guidelines for the termination of disability benefits as set forth in Kuzmin v. Schweiker, 714 F.2d 1233 (3d Cir. 1983). We agree and therefore reverse.


Ms. Keegan, born in 1932, and formerly employed as a secretary, applied for disability insurance benefits on June 28, 1976. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Office of Disability Operations of the Social Security Administration. The case was considered de novo by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who, in a decision dated April 27, 1978, determined that Ms. Keegan was disabled for purposes of the Act, and that her disability commenced on November 8, 1974. The ALJ concluded, based in part on medical reports from Doctors Farber and Chirieleison, that Keegan was disabled due to a combination of: "(1) rheumatic heart disease, (2) mitral stenosis and insufficiency with the insufficiency predominating, and (3) anxiety." Subsequently on April 30, 1978 Ms. Keegan filed for and was granted Supplemental Security Income Benefits.

On June 23, 1981 Ms. Keegan was notified that her disability had ceased as of May, 1981 and that her benefits would be terminated as of July, 1981. The administration in its notice advised Ms. Keegan that her benefits had been initially granted "because of rheumatic heart disease," Tr. 163, and that the medical evidence indicated that her heart was currently enlarged and that her cardiogram reflected "some non-specific changes consistent with [her] condition." Further the evidence showed, according to the notice, the absence of symptoms indicative of congestive heart failure, chest pains or fainting spells. Tr. 163. Accordingly, she was advised that "in view of the evidence you have the functional ability to perform your customary occupation as a secretary as it is generally performed in the national economy." Tr. 163.

Following a hearing which was requested by Ms. Keegan, the ALJ found that Ms. Keegan was unable to work as a secretary since that activity involved "light exertion" as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (1984), but that she retained sufficient residual capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) (1984). The ALJ determined that Ms. Keegan's past work experience should be classified as "skilled" as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1568(c) (1984), and that these clerical skills were transferable to sedentary work. 20 C.F.R. 404.1568(a) (1984).

The ALJ's opinion, relying heavily on the report of Dr. Kastenbaum who examined Ms. Keegan for the Administration, conceded that the claimant suffers from rheumatic heart disease with probable mitral insufficiency along with a history of atrial fibrillation, and that this impairment "significantly limits her physical ability to perform basic work related activities." Tr. 22. The ALJ stated that Ms. Keegan's symptoms are aggravated by exertion but relieved by rest and that she was "able to carry out her daily activities without much in the way of symptoms." This latter observation is apparently taken from Dr. Kastenbaum's report. Tr. 179.

The Appeal Council refused to review the ALJ's opinion, thereby making the Secretary's determination of non-disability final. Ms. Keegan appealed the decision to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) (1982). Each party moved for summary judgment, and the matter was referred to a magistrate for a recommendation. The magistrate reviewed the evidence and recommended that Ms. Keegan's motion for summary judgment be denied and the Secretary's motion for summary judgment be granted. In addressing one of Ms. Keegan's contentions, namely, that the ALJ made an error of law in determining that her disability had ceased, the magistrate's report discussed our decision in Kuzmin. The report stated that Kuzmin was satisfied in that Ms. Keegan failed to meet her burden of proof by showing that her condition remained the same as it was at the time of the earlier determination of disability. The mMagistrate's report seems to base this conclusion on the lack of additional medical evidence subsequent to the initial determination of disability attributable to the fact that Ms. Keegan was not being treated by any particular physician since 1977.

Ms. Keegan contends that the magistrate's interpretation of Kuzmin was incorrect.*fn1 She argues that her testimony constituted evidence of a continuing disability which thereby effectively shifted the burden of proof to the Secretary to present evidence of sufficient improvement in her condition to permit her to undertake "gainful activity."

The district court adopted the recommendation of the magistrate and granted the Secretary's motion for summary judgment. The court held that the guidelines for the termination of benefits provided by our decision in Kuzmin were properly followed. First, the court concluded that Ms. Keegan failed to introduce "sufficient evidence that her condition is the same or worse when compared to her condition at the time of the prior finding of disability." App. 8A at 4. Second, the court concluded that even if a presumption of continuing disability was created by Ms. Keegan, Dr. Kastenbaum's report was sufficient evidence to enable the Secretary to rebut the presumption of continuing disability.

Since Ms. Keegan's sole ground for appeal rests on the district court's alleged error in interpreting and implementing our decision in Kuzmin, ...

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