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Christner v. Astrue

January 27, 2009

JOHN E. CHRISTNER, 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, John E. Christner ("Christner" or "Plaintiff"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment, together with supporting briefs, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the record has been developed at the administrative level.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI benefits on May 9, 2006, alleging disability since April 1, 2005, due to mental and emotional problems. (Docket No. 7 at 160-66, 187, R. at 156-62, 183); (hereinafter "R. at ___"). Plaintiff's claims were initially denied, and he filed a timely request for an administrative hearing. (R. at 103-25). A hearing was held on October 18, 2007, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 63-99). Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing, during which he appeared and testified. Id. A Vocational Expert ("VE") was also present and gave testimony. Id. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 30, 2007, finding that Plaintiff was "not disabled" within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 45-59). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when, on June 6, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-3). Plaintiff commenced the instant action on July 14, 2008, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on October 24, 2008. (Docket No. 12). The Commissioner's motion was filed on November 10, 2008. (Docket No. 14).

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, 46 (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 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, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (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 him 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 USC § 423(d)(1). A claimant is considered to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 USC § 423(d)(2)(A).

To support his ultimate findings, an ALJ must do more than state factual conclusions. Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d 309, 312-313 (3d Cir. 1974). He 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 must 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 USC § 405(a), has developed 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 determined 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 prove that, given claimant's mental or physical limitations, age, education, and work experience, he is able to perform substantial gainful activity in jobs available in the national economy. Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461; Stunkard, ...


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