The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge
Plaintiff, Stephen Strogish (hereinafter "Plaintiff" or "Mr. Strogish"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his 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 ("ALJ") Decision, the memoranda of the parties, and the entire record, the Court will grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment and deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.
Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on May 21, 1999, alleging disability beginning on August 11, 1998. Plaintiff's claim was denied. He requested a hearing and chose to have the decision issued based on the record. Plaintiff was found to be able to perform his past relevant work in a decision issued on July 21, 2000.
Plaintiff reapplied for benefits on February 27 and March 3, 2004, alleging disability due to depression, anxiety, and panic disorder and an onset date of February 7, 2004. Both claims were denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing seeking a review of the decisions. The hearing was held on July 19, 2005. The ALJ found, in a decision issued on October 14, 2005, that Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant jobs.
On March 10, 2006, Plaintiff filed a fourth application for benefits, again alleging disability due to depression, anxiety, and panic disorder and an onset date of February 5 or 7, 2004*fn1 . Mr. Strogish's claims for DIB and SSI were denied on August 23, 2006. He submitted a request for a hearing on October 26, 2006, for which the hearing was held on January 15, 2008. The hearing was held before ALJ Randall W. Moon, who also presided over Plaintiff's previous claims. Plaintiff, appearing with his legal representative, testified at the hearing along with vocational expert, James E. Ganoe, M.P.A.
Initially, the ALJ sought to resolve the issue of whether the earlier unfavorable decisions which denied Plaintiff benefits should be reopened and revisited in the determination of Plaintiff's March 2006 claim (hereinafter "current claim" or "current application"). As already indicated, Plaintiff had stated in his current application that he was disabled on February 5, 2004, a date that precedes the October 14, 2005 decision finding him not disabled. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff's current claim involved "essentially the same facts and issues as were adjudicated in" earlier claims. ALJ Moon found that, as the March 10, 2006 application date was within two years of the May 24, 2004 date in "which he was initially notified as to the denial of the concurrent applications he had previously filed on February 27 and March 3, 2004", these previous determinations are "amenable to reopening and revising for 'good cause'." Tr. 19.*fn2
Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that the principle of res judicata applied as there was no new material evidence introduced that could sufficiently serve as a basis for reopening the previous determinations. The scope of consideration was reduced to the period since October 15, 2005 (the day after the date of the previous, unfavorable hearing decision). The ALJ also considered uncontradicted evidentiary findings from the earlier unfavorable decisions (of July 21, 2000 and October 14, 2005) that he found offered support for the conclusions he reached with Plaintiff's current application. Tr. 19-20.
ALJ Moon issued a decision on March 25, 2008, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff was able to perform simple, routine, one to three step instructions and tasks that required no more than occasional contact with others. ALJ Moon found that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work of a concrete or general laborer, a carpenter helper, and a maintenance worker. On April 15, 2008, the Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's decision, thus becoming the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed his 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 a depressive/panic-related disorder and a history of polysubstance abuse in partial remission. Tr. 22. Even so, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity criteria of an impairment or impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 (specifically, Listing Impairment 12.00 Mental Disorders). Id.
The ALJ also considered the effect of substance abuse on Plaintiff's impairments and determined that, even considering Plaintiff's substance abuse, there was no evidence of any debilitating psychological symptoms (lasting for any twelve (12) consecutive months during the period at issue) that have imposed "more than mild" limitations on his ability to engage in daily activities, social functioning, concentration, persistence or pace or that has resulted in episodes of decompensation. Id.
The ALJ made the following specific findings:
1. Plaintiff meets the non-disability requirements for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits set forth in Section 216(i) of the Act so as to be insured for such benefits through the period at issue, i.e., since October 15, 2005.
2. Plaintiff has not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" at any time during the period at issue.
3. Plaintiff has the following medically determinable severe impairments: depressive/panic-related disorder(s) and a history of polysubstance abuse in partial remission.
4. Plaintiff has had no medically determinable impairments, whether considered individually or in combination, that have presented symptoms sufficient to meet or medically equal the severity criteria for any impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, specially, Listed impairments 12.04, Affective Disorders, 12.06, Anxiety-Related Disorders, and 12.09, Substance Addiction Disorders.
5. Plaintiff has had the residual functional capacity to perform, without impairment-related exertional limitation, a range of work activity that involves only simple, routine, one to three-step instructions and tasks that require no more than occasional contact with others.
6. Throughout the period at issue, Plaintiff has been capable of performing his "vocationally relevant" past employment as a carpenter helper or concrete worker, as such job(s) were previously performed by him, and has also been capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers within the national economy.
7. Plaintiff has not been under a "disability", as defined in the Act, at any time during the period at issue, i.e. since October 15, 2005.
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).
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 ...