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Martin v. Astrue

August 1, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer



Plaintiff Evelyn Martin ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, respectively. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the record has been developed at the administrative level. For the following reasons, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge is affirmed.


Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB and SSI on July 14, 2004, alleging disability as of July 1, 2004. (R. at 336). The reconsideration step of the administrative review was eliminated and the case was escalated to the hearing level. (R. at 32, 327). On October 18, 2006, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 332). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. Id. Karen Krull, a vocational expert, also testified. (R. at 361). On October 27, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision in which he determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 23). The Appeals Council subsequently denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. (R. at 4-7). Plaintiff now seeks review of that decision by this court.


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 Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). 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, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (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. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). A claimant is considered 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).

An ALJ must do more than simply state factual conclusions to support his ultimate findings. Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d 309, 312-13 (3d Cir 1974). The ALJ must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). Moreover, the ALJ 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 rule making authority under 42 U.S.C. § 405(a), has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court 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." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 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. [20 C.F.R.] §§ 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. [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c). Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003) (footnotes omitted).

If the claimant is determined to be unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner (Step 5) to prove that, given plaintiff's mental or physical limitations, age, education, and work experience, he or she is able to perform substantial gainful activity in jobs available in the national economy. Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461; Stunkard, 842 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986).


A. General Background

Plaintiff was born on May 6, 1957, making her forty-nine years old, 191 days short of her fiftieth birthday, at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 12, 336). A 49 year old is considered a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). Plaintiff has a twelfth-grade education. (R. at 103). She last worked on a full time basis as an office manager, (R. at 340, 342-43), but left that job on December 11, 2003, (R. at 99). She had previously worked as a copy clerk, a collator and a short order cook. (R. at 99-100, 362). Finally, at the time of the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff was employed as a telephone operator, working twelve or fewer hours a week. (R. at 356-57). Plaintiff avers July 1, 2004 as the onset date of her disability. (R. at 335-36).

B. Medical Background

Plaintiff claims to be disabled due to a number of medical conditions. On March 16, 1999, Plaintiff fell while cleaning a hot tub in the course of employment at Radisson Hotels, causing her to twist her knee and experience pain and swelling. (R. at 159). After the fall, Plaintiff visited her primary care physician, Dr. Randy Stigliano. (R. at 160). The Radisson then referred her to Corporate Health Services where she saw Dr. Bill Trachtman. Id. Dr. Trachtman ordered an MRI which was performed on April 14, 1999 and was negative. Id. Dr. Trachtman referred Plaintiff to Dr. Ernest Swanson, (R. at 159), who believed the MRI was a false negative, (R. at 161).

Dr. Swanson performed the first of two arthroscopies on Plaintiff's left knee on May 4, 1999.

(R. at 162). The surgery went without complication and the Plaintiff was taken to the recovery room in "satisfactory condition." Id. Plaintiff continued to feel pain in her knee after the surgery and a second arthroscopy was performed on January 26, 2000. (R. at 150). The Plaintiff ...

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