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Santiago v. Astrue

June 25, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge



I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Evelyn Villarini Santiago (hereinafter "Plaintiff"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter "Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Consistent with the customary practice in the Western District of Pennsylvania, the parties have submitted cross-motions for summary judgment on the record developed at the administrative proceedings.

After careful consideration of the Administrative Law Judge's (hereinafter "ALJ") decision, the memoranda of the parties, and the entire record, the Court finds the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and therefore will grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and enter judgment in favor of the Commissioner.

II. Procedural History

On August 12, 2006, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on July 20, 2005. On March 1, 2006, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing after her initial claim was denied. The hearing was held before ALJ Patricia C. Henry on October 24, 2006, at which Plaintiff, represented by an attorney, testified, as did a vocational expert.

On December 22, 2006, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim, finding that Plaintiff is not disabled and is able to do light work with additional limitations. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks performed in a slow-paced environment, simple, work-related decisions, occasional postural maneuvers as in balancing, stooping, crouching, climbing, kneeling, and crawling, and the occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public.

On November 23, 2007, the Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's decision, thus becoming the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed her complaint herein seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

III. Statement of the Case

The ALJ found that the record supports the finding of severe impairments which consisted of Hepatitis C, mild cervical degenerative disc disease, and residuals from knee surgery and depression. Tr. 21.*fn1 The ALJ discussed portions of Plaintiff's testimony where she stated that she suffered from other impairments including reduced finger flexion, status post palm surgery, arm and back pain. Id. Plaintiff stated that she no longer had 24% of her ability to flex her index finger due to a knife cut, she had reduced grip strength as a result of palm surgery, and that she suffered from right-hand pain and left arm pain due to a stabbing incident fifteen years earlier. Id. These portions of her testimony were discounted as they were not supported by the evidence on record and Plaintiff continued to work after these incidents. Thus, the ALJ found that these discounted impairments had a de minimis effect on Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities and engage in substantial gainful activity on a sustained basis. Id.

The ALJ made the following specific findings:

1. Plaintiff is forty-seven years old, thus qualifying as a "younger" individual.

2. Plaintiff has a high school education through a graduate equivalency diploma.

3. Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 20, 2005.

4. Plaintiff met the disability insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through at least December 31, 2010.

5. The medical evidence shows that Plaintiff has Hepatitis C, residuals from right knee arthroscopy, cervical degenerative disc disease, and depression. While these impairments are severe, they do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4.

6. The medical evidence also establishes that Plaintiff has a remote history of drug and alcohol abuse in addition to status post palm surgery and reduced index finger flexion. These impairments are non-severe and only have a de minimis effect on Plaintiff's ability to perform substantial gainful activity.

7. Plaintiff has an unskilled work background and is unable to perform her past relevant work as a cashier, dishwasher, preparation cook, and housekeeper.

8. Plaintiff's statements about her impairments and their impact on her ability to work are not entirely credible.

9. Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to engage in light work with additional limitations. She is limited to the occasional postural movements (like balancing, kneeling, crawling, stooping, crouching, and climbing), simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in slow-paced production environment, involving only simple, work-related decisions and relatively few changes. She can only have limited to occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public.

Tr. 19-26.

IV. Standards of Review

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Section 405(g) permits a district court to review transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based. Because the standards for eligibility under Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, regarding Disability Insurance Benefits, or "DIB"), and judicial review thereof, are virtually identical to the standards under Title XVI (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f, regarding Supplemental Security Income, or "SSI"), regulations and decisions rendered under the Title II disability standard, 42 U.S.C. § 423, are pertinent and applicable in Title XVI decisions rendered under 42 U.S.C. § 1381(a). Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 n. 3 (1990); Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 119 n.1 (3d Cir. 2002).

Substantial Evidence

If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995); Wallace v. Secretary of HHS, 722 F.2d 1150, 1152 (3d Cir. 1983). The district court's function is to determine whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. See Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir.1994) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The Supreme Court has explained that "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence, but rather, is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."

Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (citation omitted). See Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005); Ventura, 55 F.3d at 901 (quoting Richardson); Stunkard v. Secretary of HHS, 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has referred to this standard as "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002), quoting Jesurum v. Secretary of the Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995). "A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the Secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence." Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993), quoting Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983). The substantial evidence standard allows a court to review a decision of an ALJ, yet avoid interference with the administrative responsibilities of the Commissioner. See Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983).

In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the district court does not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusions for those of the fact finder. Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552. In making this determination, the district court considers and reviews only those findings upon which the ALJ based his or her decision, and cannot rectify errors, omissions or gaps in the medical record by supplying additional findings from its own independent analysis of portions of the record which were not mentioned or discussed by the ALJ. Fargnoli v. Massarini, 247 F.3d 34, 44 n.7 (3d Cir. 2001) ("The District Court, apparently recognizing the ALJ's failure to consider all of the relevant and probative evidence, attempted to rectify this error by relying on medical records found in its own independent analysis, and which were not mentioned by the ALJ. This runs counter to the teaching of SEC ...

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