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Stunkard v. Secretary of Health and Human Services

submitted: January 8, 1988.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil No. 85-2861.

Seitz, Hutchinson and Garth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Garth


GARTH, Circuit Judge:

William M. Stunkard appeals from the district court's order affirming a final decision of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) denying Stunkard's request for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Supp. V 1981) (the "Act"). This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1982).


William Stunkard had worked for over 25 years as a truck driver, when on November 12, 1983, he became unable to continue in that capacity because of a back injury sustained while on the job. On July 31, 1984, Stunkard applied for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Act, claiming that his back injury and associated pain had caused him to become disabled. After a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Stunkard's claim was denied on the ground that his physical impairments, though serious enough to result in partial disability, were not sufficiently severe to prevent him from undertaking substantial gainful activity under the Act.*fn1

The medical evidence produced during Stunkard's administrative hearing disclosed that he experienced both throbbing and shooting pain radiating down his back to the area of the groin and the left knee. Stunkard attempted to control the pain with prescribed pain medication and used prescribed medication to help him sleep. After two years of conservative, non-intrusive medical treatment failed to alleviate his back pain, Stunkard underwent surgery on January 16, 1984. Stunkard's post-operative recovery was "uneventful" and, after three weeks, he returned to his treating physician, Dr. Howard J. Senter, for continued treatment.*fn2

Stunkard has been examined on a number of occasions since 1984. The most recent evaluations from Dr. Senter, both written in 1985, indicate that Stunkard improved somewhat after his surgery. These most recent reports show that Stunkard "has stabilized at an improved but partially disabled state," Tr. at 157, and has been given his doctor's permission to return to work. Id. Moreover, Dr. Senter completed a medical assessment form on May 28, 1985, on which he indicated that Stunkard could not lift and/or carry more than 25 pounds and could not stand and/or walk for more than three of the eight hours in a workday. He also indicated that Stunkard was able to sit no more than three hours during an eight hour workday and could only occasionally climb and balance. Dr. Senter also reported that Stunkard could not stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl, or operate moving machinery, and could not push or pull. Tr. at 158-59.

In a decision dated July 31, 1985, the ALJ found that Stunkard had severe residuals from surgery for a herniated nucleus pulposus, but that he did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in, 20 C.F.R. Reg. No. 4, Subpt. P, Appendix 1 (1987). He thus concluded that Stunkard was not per se disabled.

The ALJ also found that Stunkard's subjective complaints of pain were credible to the extent that they prevented him from undertaking strenuous activities, but that Stunkard had no nonexertional limitations as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545 (1987). See Tr. at 15. Further, the ALJ found that although Stunkard could not perform his past relevant work as a truck driver, he retained the residual functional capacity to perform the physical exertional requirements of work except that he could not lift more than 25 pounds or undertake work that required constant pushing or pulling movements. On this basis, the ALJ concluded that Stunkard could perform the full range of "light work" as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 1567 (1987). Because Stunkard was 52 years old and had a high school diploma at the time of the ALJ's decision, the ALJ applied Rules 202.14 and 202.15 of 20 C.F.R. Regulations No. 4, Subpt. P, Appendix 2 (1987), and, on that basis, determined that Stunkard was not disabled under the criteria set forth in the Act. This decision was subsequently adopted by the Secretary.

The district court affirmed the Secretary's decision on the ground that the record contained substantial evidence supporting the Secretary's adoption of the ALJ's conclusion.


Our standard of review is whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Secretary's decision. Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 285 (3d Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842, 91 S. Ct. 1420 (1971). It consists of more than a ...

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