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Nichols v. Commissioner of Social Security

June 18, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donetta W. Ambrose, Chief U.S. District Judge

AMBROSE, Chief District Judge



Plaintiff filed a Complaint [Docket No. 3] seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) of an adverse decision of Defendant denying Plaintiff social security supplemental income benefits. Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment [Docket Nos. 8 and12]. Both parties have filed briefs in support of their motions. [Docket Nos. 9, 13 and 14.] After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and for the reasons discussed below, Defendant's Motion [Docket No. 12] is granted and Plaintiff's Motion [Docket No. 8] is denied.

I. Background

Plaintiff filed her claim for social security Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits on April 13, 2004, alleging an onset of disability as of March 1, 2004 due to back pain and right leg pain. (Docket No. 6, at 53.) Plaintiff was 50 years of age as of the alleged onset of disability, and also suffers from depression and agoraphobia. (Id. at 22.) Her claim was denied on September 17, 2004. (Id. at 18.) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was held on April 17, 2006. (Id.)

By decision dated December 29, 2006, Plaintiff's claim was denied on the grounds that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work, and therefore was not disabled. (Id. at 16-21.) The Appeals Council denied her request for review on December 29, 2006 and, after consideration of additional evidence, again on April 11, 2007. (Id. at 6-12.)

Plaintiff's appeal to this Court is based on the ALJ's purported failure to discuss the findings of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Maria Wahrenberger of West View Family Health Associates, and Plaintiff's physical therapist, Eagle Physical Therapy. According to Plaintiff, the evidence submitted by these persons corroborated her testimony that the severe pain in her legs and feet does not permit her to frequently stand and walk as required for "light work." Instead, again according to Plaintiff, the ALJ impermissibly relied on the report of the consultative examiner, Ryon Hurh, M.D., dated two years prior to the hearing.

II. Legal Analysis

A. 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. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record.

Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F. Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). 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.

To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that she cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return ...

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