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Knaub v. Astrue

January 13, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Muir

(Complaint Filed 7/11/08)


The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Devin M. Knaub's claim for social security disability insurance benefits and childhood disability benefits.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and is "insured," that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. In order to be eligible for disability insurance benefits, an individual must be disabled and also insured. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the "date last insured." It is undisputed that Knaub met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2006. Tr. 19.*fn1 In order to establish entitlement to disability insurance benefits Knaub must establish that he was disabled on or before that date. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. §404.131(a)(2008); see Matullo v. Bowen, 926 F.2d 240, 244 (3d Cir. 1990).

To qualify for Childhood Disability Benefits, a claimant must have been disabled before age 22 and continue to be disabled, have a parent who is on Social Security disability or retired and collecting Social Security benefits, or the claimant's parents must have died and the parents were fully insured when they died. In other words the child is entitled to benefits based on the parents' work record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.350. It is undisputed that Knaub "meets all of the nondisability requirements of Childhood Disability Benefits set forth in . . . the Social Security Act." Tr. 26. The issue in dispute is whether or not Knaub is suffering from a disability which lasted more than 12 months and prevents him from engaging in substantial gainful work activity.

Knaub, who was born on November 29, 1959, claims that he became disabled on January 1, 1999, because of certain mental and physical disorders. At the time of the onset of his disability he was in the 7th grade. Tr. 355. It is alleged that Knaub suffers from agoraphobia, panic disorder, anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches and back problems.

On April 3, 2004, Knaub protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits and childhood disability benefits. Tr. 86-91 and 579-584. After his claims were denied initially, a hearing was held on July 20, 2005, before an administrative law judge. Tr. 618-679. On December 19, 2005, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Knaub's applications for benefits. Tr. 19-26. On February 15, 2006, Knaub filed a request for review of the decision with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration. Tr. 14-15. On May 14, 2008, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Knaub's request for review. Tr. 8-11. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

On July 11, 2008, Knaub filed a complaint in this court requesting that we reverse the decision of the Commissioner denying him disability benefits. The Clerk of Court assigned responsibility for this case to Judge Munley but referred it to Magistrate Judge Mannion for preliminary consideration. On September 12, 2008, the case was reassigned to the undersigned judge for disposition.

The Commissioner filed an answer to the complaint and a copy of the administrative record on September 26, 2008. Pursuant to the Local Rules, Knaub filed his brief on November 10, 2008, and the Commissioner filed his brief on December 12, 2008. The appeal*fn2 became ripe for disposition on December 29, 2008, when Knaub filed a reply brief.

Our review of the Commissioner's findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether those findings are supported by "substantial evidence." See Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security, 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). However, we have plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater, 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995).

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record," Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981), and "must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the Commissioner ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security, 529 F.3d 198, 203 (3d Cir. 2008); Cotter, 642 F.2d at 706-707. Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).

The Commissioner utilizes a five-step process in evaluating disability insurance claims. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520; Poulos, 474 F.3d at 91-92.*fn3 This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity*fn4 (2) has an impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that is severe,*fn5 (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment,*fn6 (4) has the residual functional capacity to return to his or her past work and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work in the national economy. Id. As part of step four the administrative law judge must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity. Id.*fn7

Residual functional capacity is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis. See Social Security Ruling 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34475 (July 2, 1996). The residual functional capacity assessment must include a discussion of the individual's abilities. Id; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545; Hartranft, 181 F.3d at 359 n.1 ("'Residual functional capacity' is defined as that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s).").

In this case the administrative law judge at step one found that Knaub "has not consistently engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 1999 (20 CFR § 404.1520(b))." Tr. 21. The administrative law judge stated that "[a]lthough the claimant has occasionally worked above substantial gainful activity levels, as most of his work has been below substantial gainful activity levels, it is necessary to proceed in the sequential evaluation process." Tr. 21.

At step two, the administrative law judge found that Knaub suffers from the following severe impairments: anxiety, a lumbar strain with mild scoliosis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Tr. 21. The administrative law judge found that "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to not be medically determinable" and that Knaub was not impaired by that disorder. Tr. 24

At step three, the administrative law judge found that Knaub's impairments individually or in combination did not meet or equal a listed impairment. Tr. 22.

At step four the administrative law judge found that Knaub had the residual functional capacity to lift and carry up to ten pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally. He has no limitations in his ability to stand, walk, or sit during the workday.

He can push and pull up to twenty pounds with his extremities. He can frequently bend, reach overhead, climb, balance, and stoop. In addition to simple repetitive work, he can also perform detailed work and low level complex work. He is precluded from high stress employment and is precluded from dealing with the public. He can handle moderate stress employment so long as he does not have any confrontational settings. He can work at an average level of pace but can not work at a high pace, such as what would be required for piece work. He can perform work that requires moderate levels of concentration. He can not work at jobs that do not allow unscheduled restroom breaks due to irritable bowel syndrome.

Tr. 22. The administrative law judge in essence limited Knaub to light work.*fn8 The administrative law judge found that Knaub had no past relevant work experience. Tr. 24. With respect to this finding the administrative law judge stated: "As most of the claimant's past work has not been at substantial gainful activity levels, the undersigned resolves this issue in the claimant's favor." Tr. 24.

At the fifth step of the sequential evaluation process, the administrative law judge concluded that in light of Knaub's residual functional capacity, age, and education, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy which he could perform, such as stuffer, bench assembler and examiner/inspector, and he, therefore, was not disabled. Tr. 25-26.

We have thoroughly reviewed the administrative record and have concluded for the reasons outlined below that the decision of the Commissioner should be vacated and the case remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. We will briefly review the evidence, including evidence relating to Knaub's employment and medical history, and then specify the errors committed by the administrative law judge in evaluating the evidence.

At the time of the hearing before the administrative law judge, Knaub was 19 years of age. Tr. 626. For many years Knaub has been treated by a team consisting of a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a therapist. Tr. 258-330, 380, 456-536, 539-542, 560- 566, and 574. Knaub's therapist was Lynn Hunter, M.A., who worked for Yorkshire Counseling Associates, York, Pennsylvania, under the supervision of G. F. Hunter, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. Tr. 463 and 561. The administrative record contains a summary of Knaub's history prepared by Ms. Hunter. Tr. 463-465.

Knaub developed severe social phobia when he was in grade school. Tr. 313, 353, and 463-464. The phobia worsened to the point of panic disorder and agoraphobia, accompanied by migraines and nausea. Tr. 313, 316-330 and 463. Specifically, on January 28, 1999, Douglas N. Chen, M.D., a psychiatrist with York Psychiatry Associates, York, Pennsylvania, issued a letter in which he stated that Knaub was suffering from panic disorder with agoraphobia, major depression and migraine cephalgia. Tr. 315. On January 29, 1999, Dr. Chen recommended that Knaub "be placed on homebound education for the next six weeks secondary to panic disorder with agoraphobia, major depression and migraine cephalgia." Tr. 316. Because Knaub suffered from panic disorder with agoraphobia, major depression and migraine cephalgia his public school paid for him to be taught at home by tutors from third through the first half of eighth grade. Tr. 219, 355, 359, 363-65, 463-464.

During the second half of eighth grade, he returned to the classroom on a part-time basis with special accommodations and learning support, but then relapsed toward the end of the school year with a severe panic attack on May 19, 2000, which resulted in being taken to the York Hospital Crisis Center. Tr. 219-220, 261-266 and 323. On June 5, 2000, Dr. Chen issued a letter to the school stating as follows:

As you know, Devin Knaub is a patient of mine. Until May 19th Devin had been able to attend school part-time. The incident at school on May 19th has caused a setback in Devin's progress. Please excuse any absences from May 22nd to the end of the school year.

Tr. 325. Knaub commenced the ninth grade (2000-2001) attending regular classes. However, on the second day of school Knaub had difficulty as a result of his mental condition and was thereafter home schooled during ninth grade. Tr. 221 and 326-330. Throughout the 2000-2001 school year Dr. Chen noted that Knaub suffered from agoraphobia, panic disorder and severe migraines. Tr. 326-330.

For the tenth grade (2001-2002 school year) Knaub was enrolled in Manito Academy, York, Pennsylvania, a school for students with emotional difficulties. Tr. 367-379 and 464.

The classes at Manito were small and informal and the staff was trained to deal with children with severe emotional difficulties.

Tr. 464. Knaub learned to function in this protected and structured environment, receiving his high school diploma in 2004.

Knaub held several part-time jobs during his high school years. Tr. 78 He earned $1015.52 in 2001, $3290.33 in 2002, $3026.40 in 2003, and $7411.91 in 2004. Tr. 78. In 2001 and 2002, Knaub worked for Domino's Pizza; in 2003 he worked for Sears, Roebuck & Company for a brief period of time (earning $325.75) and Chuck E. Cheeses (earning $2700.65). Tr. 80-81. There is a handwritten notation in the administrative record that he worked for Domino's Pizza from September, 2001, to September 2002; he worked for Chuck E. Cheeses from June, 2003 to October, 2003; he worked for Sears, Roebuck & Company from November, 2003 to December, 2003; and he worked for Superpetz 12-15 hours per week commencing in February, 2004, earning $5.50 per hour. Tr. 80-81. Another document in the administrative record conflicts slightly with those handwritten notations. Tr. 94. A document which we will refer to as an "employment table" indicates that Knaub worked for Chuck E. Cheeses in August, September, October and November, 2003; he worked for Sears, Roebuck & Company in December, 2003 and part of January, 2004; he worked for Superpetz part of January, 2004, and in February, March, April, May, June and part of July, 2004; and he worked for WalMart (Sam's Club) part of July, 2004, and August, 2004, through July, 2005. Tr. 94.

After Knaub graduated from high school, he attended Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, pursuing an associate degree in architecture. Tr. 546, 631 and 634. As noted above Knaub attempted to work part-time while attending Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. Knaub was permitted to take his 2-year course work over 3 years because of his special needs. Tr. 546. On July 25, 2005, Debra A. Schuch, Counselor/Special ...

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