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Smail v. Astrue

May 7, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge


Pending before the Court are the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT filed by the Commissioner of Social Security (Document No. 8) and the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT filed by Plaintiff, Rose Marie Smail (Document No. 10). The motions have been thoroughly briefed and are ripe for disposition.

Acting pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c), which incorporates § 405(g), Rose Marie Smail ("Smail" or "plaintiff") seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner" or "defendant") disallowing her claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.

Plaintiff was born on September 29, 1950. (R. 24). She did not finish high school, but did acquire her GED in 1997. (R. 84). Her only relevant work experience established in the record is as a caregiver, from 1998 until March of 2001. (R. 79). The record reflects that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since then. (R. 76).

Plaintiff filed a protective claim for SSI on January 31, 2005, in which she asserted disability resulting from pain in her arms and legs, with an alleged onset date of January 2, 2004.

(R. 60, 76-78). Additionally, plaintiff contends that a depressive disorder is also a factor in her inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. (R. 81-82, 344-47). Plaintiff's claims were denied on initial review, and she requested a hearing. (R. 31-35, 38). A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May 1, 2006, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, during which claimant was represented by counsel and appeared and testified. (R. 315-356). A vocational expert ("VE") was also appeared and testified. Id.

On September 26, 2006, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision regarding plaintiff's claims, finding that she was able to perform a range of modified medium work and that jobs suitable for plaintiff, considering her impairments, existed in the national economy.*fn1 The ALJ concluded, therefore, that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.*fn2 (R. 9-19). On May 4, 2007, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 4-6). Administrative remedies have been exhausted.

This court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). The court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986), cert. denied, 482 U.S. 905 (1987). Congress has clearly expressed its intention that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 2545 (1988). As long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it cannot be set aside even if this court "would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

In order to establish a disability under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate a "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents [her] from engaging in any 'substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Stunkard v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is considered to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity "only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

To support his ultimate findings, the Commissioner must do more than simply state factual conclusions. He must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). An administrative law judge must consider all medical evidence contained in the record and provide adequate explanations for disregarding or rejecting evidence. Weir on Behalf of Weir v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 955, 961 (3d Cir. 1984); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA"), acting pursuant to its legislatively delegated rulemaking authority, has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court recently summarized this process as follows:

If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further. At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity."

[20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment," defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c).

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003)(footnotes omitted). Hence, as a general matter, a claimant seeking benefits under the Act may establish the existence of a statutory disability by (1) introducing medical evidence that she is per se disabled as a result of an impairment appearing in the Listing of Impairments or (2) demonstrating that the functional limitations caused by her impairments effectively preclude her from returning to her past relevant ...

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