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Harrison v. Astrue

August 29, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge



Pending before the court is an appeal from the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "defendant") denying the claim of Laron Harrison ("plaintiff") for supplemental security income ("SSI") under title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. ( "SAA"). Plaintiff contends that the decision of the administrative law judge (the "ALJ") that he is not disabled and therefore not entitled to benefits, should be reversed because the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Defendant asserts that the decision of the ALJ is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court will grant summary judgment in favor of plaintiff and will deny defendant's motion for summary judgment because the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence of record.

Procedural History

Plaintiff previously filed an application for children's SSI benefits on February 25, 1997, and he was found to be disabled. (R. at 12.) In March 2003, his childhood SSI payments ceased due to excess unearned income. (Id.) Plaintiff protectively filed for adult SSI on February 15, 2005, claiming disability since February 1, 1997. (R. at 35-38.) Plaintiff needed to establish that his impairment satisfied the adult disability criteria in order to be eligible for SSI benefits because he was eighteen years old at the time of his current application. (R. at 12.) In August 2005, the Commissioner denied plaintiff's application for benefits. (R. at 23.)

Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge after his application was denied. (R. at 29); however, plaintiff authorized a decision on the record through his counsel and did not appear at the hearing that was conducted by the ALJ on February 22, 2007. At the hearing, the ALJ obtained testimony from a vocational expert. (R. at 111-14.) On March 16, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found that plaintiff was not disabled and, therefore, not entitled to benefits. (R. at 18.) Plaintiff timely requested a review of the ALJ's decision (R. at 8), and by letter dated June 22, 2007, the Appeals Council denied his request for review. (R. at 4-6.) Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, plaintiff commenced the present action seeking judicial review.

Plaintiff Background and Medical Evidence

Plaintiff was born on February 26, 1987. (R. at 36.) He filed an application for children's SSI benefits in 1997, which was granted in the same year. His childhood SSI benefits were terminated in 2003. (R. at 12.) He filed the current application for adult SSI benefits in 2005, which was denied. (R. at 23.) At the time of the application, plaintiff had completed the ninth grade, and was enrolled in tenth grade special education classes. (R. at 42-43.)

In January 1998, Gloria Walton, NCSP, a school psychologist, conducted a psychological evaluation of plaintiff to determine his level of adaptive behavior at the time for appropriate educational planning. (R. at 73.) Plaintiff was receiving learning support in the fourth grade at Morrow Elementary School and was classified as mentally retarded at the time. (Id.) Ms. Walton concluded that plaintiff's overall measure of adaptive behavior was comparable to that of the an average individual at age six years two months and that his functional independence was limited.

(R. at 74.) Ms. Walton also found that plaintiff demonstrated moderately serious asocial maladaptive behaviors and that he needed limited support, somewhat more than others his age. (Id.)

In December 2003, when plaintiff was sixteen years old, Charles Cohen, Ph.D., conducted a psychological evaluation of plaintiff. (R. at 75.) At that time, plaintiff was enrolled in the ninth grade in special education classes and had been in special education for a significant period of time. (R. at 75, 76.) Dr. Cohen's diagnosis of plaintiff's mental status was that plaintiff suffered from depression and mild mental retardation. (R. at 78.) Dr. Cohen administered the WAIS*fn1 -III on which plaintiff achieved a verbal IQ score of 66, a performance IQ score of 73, and a full scale IQ score of 66. (R. at 77.) Dr. Cohen reported that plaintiff appeared to be giving his best effort during the WAIS-III examination and stated that his scores reflected plaintiff's intellectual functional level at that time. (R. at 78.) The WRAT*fn2 3 scores were also generally consistent with plaintiff's verbal IQ score. (Id.)

At the time of Dr. Cohen's evaluation, plaintiff's mother was in jail and he was in the care of his foster grandmother. (R. at 76.) He was also separated from most of his siblings. (R. at 76, 82.) He felt sad and unhappy and he once had a suicidal idea. (R. at 76.) Plaintiff had been seeing a therapist for a year and was still in therapy. (R. at 75, 79.) Dr. Cohen observed that plaintiff was depressed and that his learning and achievement levels were commensurate with a finding of mild mental retardation. (R. at 78.) At the end of the "prognosis" section of Dr. Cohen's report, he stated that plaintiff would continue to require very high levels of support even to function minimally in his environment. (R. at 79.)

In July 2005, another Clinical Psychological Disability Evaluation was conducted by Anthony Fallica, Ph.D., with respect to plaintiff's current application for benefits. (R. at 80.) At the time of this evaluation, plaintiff was enrolled in tenth grade special education courses. (R. at 80.) He had worked as a fast food cook in a McDonald's restaurant from November 2004 to February 2005. He worked nine hours per day and one day per week. (R. at 49.) Plaintiff stated that he stopped working there because the employer cut his hours back. (R. at 80.) In the "diagnoses" section of his evaluation, Dr. Fallica noted that both clinical impressions and a psychological report from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, dated January 29, 1998, suggested that plaintiff was suffering from an Oppositional-Defiant Disorder associated possibly with mental retardation, as well as from a learning disorder at the time of his evaluation of plaintiff. (R. at 83-84.) Dr. Fallica stated in the "prognosis" section of his evaluation that plaintiff could benefit from brief psychotherapy sessions in order to help him deal with his anger and aggressive behavior that followed his reported mild episodes of depression. (R. at 84.)

In the Medial Source Statement of Ability to do Work-Related Activities (Mental) section of his report, Dr. Fallica found that plaintiff's impairment moderately affected his ability to understand and remember detailed instructions and to carry out detailed instructions and slightly affected his ability to make judgments on simple work-related decisions. (R. at 87.) In addition, Dr. Fallica found that plaintiff's impairment slightly affected his ability to respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting and to respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting. (Id.) He also found that plaintiff cared for all his personal grooming and hygiene needs and reportedly interacted with his family members and friends. (R. at 84.) In the opinion of Dr. Fallica, however, plaintiff was not able to handle his financial affairs with adequate and sustained judgment and had a problem with concentration. (Id.) Dr. Fallica also found that plaintiff's reports of dates and events were reliable. (R. at 83.)

In the following month, August 2005, state agency psychologist Dennis Gold, Ph.D., assessed plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity. (R. at 89-91.) Dr. Gold concluded that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to make simple decisions and to sustain a simple routine in a work setting. (Id.)

Legal Standard

A claimant seeking benefits under the SSA may seek judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of the claimant's benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When reviewing an administrative law judge's determination subsequently adopted by the Commissioner, this court will affirm the Commissioner's finding if the finding is supported by substantial evidence. Id.; Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 217 (3d Cir. 1984). "Substantial evidence is '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. 389, 401, 91 (1971)). This deferential standard has been referred to as "less than a preponderance of evidence but more than a scintilla." Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Under this standard, a court is not permitted to weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for that of the fact-finder. ...

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