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Bunch v. Astrue

November 26, 2008

JEFFREY BUNCH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baylson, J.

MEMORANDUM RE: SOCIAL SECURITY APPEAL

Plaintiff, Jeffrey Bunch ("Bunch," "Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner," "Defendant") denying his applications for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(c) (2000). Jurisdiction is established under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, the Court will reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand the case for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Procedural History

Bunch protectively filed applications for SSI and SSD benefits on November 16, 2005.

(R. 61, 206). The Commissioner issued initial denials of Bunch's applications on March 15, 2006 after determining that Bunch's impairments were not severe enough to render him disabled.

(R. 53, 213). Bunch, not represented by counsel, then filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter "ALJ"), which the Commissioner received on May 25, 2006. (R. 57). The hearing was held before the ALJ, Christine McCafferty, on September 19, 2007. (R. 227). The hearing was also attended by Bunch, his newly appointed counsel, and a vocational expert. (R. 227). On September 28, 2007, the ALJ rendered her decision, finding that Bunch was not disabled. (R. 18-30). Bunch then filed a timely appeal with the Appeals Council on October 30, 2007. (R. 11). On December 13, 2007, the Appeals Council determined that there was no reason to review the decision of the ALJ. (R. 12). After receiving additional evidence relevant to Bunch's appeal (R. 8), the Appeals Council set aside its prior decision but again determined that there was no reason to review the decision of the ALJ (R. 5). Bunch subsequently filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision on February 19, 2008. (Doc. 3). Plaintiff and Defendant then filed cross-motions for summary judgment (Doc. 7, 8), which are presently before this Court.

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

The Social Security Act provides for judicial review by this Court of any "final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security" in a disability proceeding. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2000).

On judicial review of the decision, the Commissioner's findings "as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Id. "Substantial evidence is 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion . . . .'" Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003)). In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, however, this Court must "not 'weigh the evidence or substitute [its own] conclusions for those of the fact finder.'" Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 (quoting Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992)).

As for the legal standards applied by the ALJ, this Court's review is plenary. See Allen v. Barnhart, 417 F.3d 396, 398 (3d Cir. 2005).

III. Discussion

Bunch argues that the ALJ erred at several points in the disability claims analysis*fn1 : (1) denying Bunch's request for an IQ examination without advance notice; (2) failing to weigh the significance of Bunch's California Academic Achievement test scores; (3) while appropriately concluding that Bunch's mental impairment was severe, failing to find that it restricted his work ability to a greater extent; (4) failing appropriately to consider how Bunch's pace problems impacted his work abilities; (5) rejecting the State Agency examining physician's conclusion that Bunch was disabled; (6) concluding that the Commissioner satisfied his burden at Step 5 of the analysis by relying on a faulty hypothetical to the vocational expert; and (7) failing to properly apply the Social Security obesity guidelines to Bunch.

A. Evidence Re: Bunch's Mental Status and Intelligence

Bunch first contends that the ALJ erred by denying Bunch's request for an IQ examination and that the denial prejudiced Bunch at the ...


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