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Logan v. Astrue

September 16, 2008

CANDICE S. LOGAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Candice S. Logan ("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 supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383. This matter comes before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment, and the supporting briefs of both parties, filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The record has been developed at the administrative level. For the following reasons, the Commissioner of Social Security's motion for summary judgment is granted, and the decision of the Administrative Law Judge is affirmed.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On November 14, 2005, Plaintiff filed her application for SSI, alleging that she suffered from a learning disability that began on November 29, 1984, which is the date of her birth. (Docket No. 6 at 16, R. at 16); (hereinafter "R. at "). Plaintiff's claim for benefits was disapproved on March 23, 2006. (R. at 16). She requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May 8, 2006. (R. at 16). A hearing was held on July 13, 2007, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (R. at 16). At the hearing, Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (R. at 16). On the date of the hearing, Plaintiff was 22 years of age and had completed 12 years of high school in special education curriculum. (R. at 16). Karen S. Krull, an impartial vocational expert also testified. (R. at 16).

By decision dated August 2, 2007, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for SSI benefits, concluding that Plaintiff had not been under a "disability" within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 16-25). Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (R. at 9-12, 227). Plaintiff's request for review was denied on August 31, 2007, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. (R. at 5-7). Plaintiff thereafter filed the present action on October 29, 2007, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on March 11, 2008. (Docket No. 8). Likewise, the Commissioner filed a motion for summary judgment on April 9, 2008. (Docket No.10).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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, 45 (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). 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). 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 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, 312-313 (3d Cir. 1974). The ALJ must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). 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 rulemaking authority under 42 U.S.C. § 405(a), 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 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 it is shown that the claimant is unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner (Step 5) to provide that, given claimant's mental or physical limitations, age, education, and work experience, 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 at 777; Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986).

IV. FACTS

A. General Background

Plaintiff was born on November 29, 1984. (R. at 85). Plaintiff was twenty-one (21) years old on the date she filed her application for SSI benefits, and was twenty-two (22) at the time of her hearing before the ALJ. (R. at 25). For decisional purposes, Plaintiff was considered a "younger individual" under 20 C.F.R. § 416.963. (R. at 18). Plaintiff completed twelve years of education, and participated in some special education services. (R. at 131). She graduated from high school on June 12, 2003, and was ranked 238 out of 461 graduating seniors with a grade point average of 2.56. (R. at 130). In 2005, Plaintiff earned her certification as a beautician from Empire Beauty School. (R. at 103, 172). Plaintiff has a son; she is single and has never married. (R. at 172, 226). Plaintiff briefly held a few different jobs in the past including employment as a babysitter, cashier at a retail chain store, and beauty assistant/receptionist at a hair salon. (R. at 86, 100, 242). Plaintiff had previously filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II in December 2003, and had also filed previous SSI applications in November 2005, November 2003, August 1998, January 1998, and January 1993. (R. at 72-73). The SSA denied each of these applications at the initial level of review. (R. at 72-73). Plaintiff claims that she is disabled due to a learning disabilityand claims that the onset of her disability is November 29, 1984. (R. at 99-100).

B. Medical Background

Plaintiff has alleged two mental impairments: (1) a learning disabilityand (2) depression. (R. at 99, 241). Plaintiff attended Penn Hills School District where she participated in special education classes under an individualized educational program. (R. at 133). The percentage of time that Plaintiff received special education outside of the regular education classroom was less than 21% under her individualized educational plan. (R. at 141). Plaintiff's primary care physician, Charles M. Hefflin, M.D. provided Plaintiff's prior mental records from March 27, 2001, through March 19, 2003; the records do not appear to reveal any complaints of depression. (R. at 152-157). Plaintiff underwent a clinical psychology evaluation on January 26, 2006, by Dr. Stephen Perconte, Ph.D. (R. at 172-79). Dr. Perconte noted that, despite numerous attempts to elicit complaints or difficulties, Plaintiff reported to him no problems and denied depression. (R. at 174). Dr. Perconte stated that Plaintiff was generally alert, cooperative, and pleasant. (R. at 175). He noted that Plaintiff indicated that, in regards to suicidal ideation, "[she] thought about it when [she] was younger and depressed," but expressed that this is different from how she currently feels. (R. at 175). Dr. Perconte stated that Plaintiff reported no problems with activities of daily living and is able to perform such activities without assistance. (R. at 175). Dr. Perconte administered a Mini-Mental State Exam to Plaintiff; she obtained a score of 28 out of 30, and Dr. Perconte indicated that her scores were generally within the average range for Plaintiff's age and education level. (R. at 175). Dr. Perconte concluded that Plaintiff reported no symptoms consistent with an Axis I psychiatric diagnosis, depression, or anxiety. (R. at 176). Overall, Dr. Perconte stated that he considered Plaintiff's prognosis to be fair. (R. at 178). He noted that, aside from what appeared to him to be below-average intellectual functioning, Plaintiff appeared to be functioning within normal limits, in regard to psychopathology. (R. at 178).

On February 25, 2006, Plaintiff met with Dr. Perconte for a second clinical psychology evaluation, during which Dr. Perconte administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale - III. (R. at 185). Dr. Perconte reported the results of the psychological testing as follows: full scale IQ score of 69, verbal IQ score of 75, and performance IQ score of 67. (R. at 186). Dr. Perconte indicated that Plaintiff's scores were in the range of the upper level of mild mental retardation or lower level of borderline intellectual functioning. (R. at 186). Dr. Perconte indicated that Plaintiff's overall level of functioning was between the level of mild mental retardation and borderline intellectual functioning.

(R. at 187). Dr. Perconte diagnosed Plaintiff with an Axis II disorder of mild mental retardation. (R. at 188).

On March 16, 2006, Dr. Ray Milke, Ph.D. reviewed the medical evidence of record and completed an assessment of Plaintiff's mental limitations (R. at 193-207). Dr. Milke considered Plaintiff's mental condition in light of Listing 12.05. (R. at 193). He concluded that Plaintiff suffered from mild mental retardation, but indicated that Plaintiff's mental ...


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