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Rodriguez v. Astrue

January 29, 2009


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


Plaintiff, Ismael Rodriguez, seeks judicial review of the decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant") denying his application for Social Security Disability Income ("SSDI") and Social Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83(c)(2000). For the reasons described below, the Court will reverse the decision of the Administrative Law Judge and remand for further consideration.

I. Background and Procedural History

On January 21, 2003, Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI and SSI benefits under Titles II and XVI respectively of the Social Security Act. (R. 79).Plaintiff alleges that as of April 18, 2001, he has not been able to work because of physical and mental disability, particular pain in his knees, ankles and lower back as well as depression and nervousness. (R. 85-84).

The application was initially denied on June 5, 2003 because the "medical evidence [did] not show any combination of physical impairments that is severe enough to keep [Plaintiff] from working," although it did show "significant problems with anxiety and depression." (R. 59). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing, which was held on August 12, 2004 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Jonathan Wesner. (R. 12, 22).

On December 9, 2004, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments, including degenerative joint disease, mood disorder, diabetes, and obesity, and would not be able to perform his past relevant work. (R. 14, 17). However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act because there were jobs available in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, given his residual functional capacity. (R. 18). Plaintiff filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council on February 5, 2005, which was denied onJuly 7, 2006. (R. 271, 4). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), Plaintiff then filed the instant action, requesting this Court reverse thedecision of the Administration. (Doc. 11).

II. Legal Standards

A. Jurisdiction

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).

B. Standard of Review

On judicial review of the Commissioner's 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)). This Court's review of the legal standards applied by the ALJ is plenary. See Allen v. Barnhart, 417 F.3d 396, 398 (3d Cir. 2005).

C. Disability Claims Analysis

The Social Security Act defines disability as an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations requiring a five-step analysis to determine the eligibility of claimants for benefits. First, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim must be denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). Second, the claim must be denied unless the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Third, if the claimant's severe impairment(s) meets or equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claim is approved. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

Fourth, if the claim is not approved under Step 3, the claim will be denied if the claimant retains the residual functional capacity ("RCF") to meet the physical and mental demands of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f). Finally, if the claimant does not retain the RFC to perform past relevant work and there is no other work in the national economy that the claimant can perform, considering his or her RFC, age, education, and past relevant work experience, then the claim will be approved. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

III. Discussion

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ made several errors in rendering his decision, including: (1) violating Plaintiff's due process rights to a full and fair hearing when he indicated that he believed Plaintiff was disabled and focused the hearing on identifying an onset date rather than establishing Plaintiff's disability; (2) failing to give proper weight to the various opinions of treating and examining physicians; and (3) concluding that Plaintiff's comments were not particularly credible.

A. The ALJ Violated Plaintiff's Due Process Rights at the Administrative Hearing by Making Misleading Comments on Plaintiff's Disability

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ deprived him of his due process rights at the August 12, 2004 hearing by implying that the ALJ had already found Plaintiff disabled and that the primary unresolved issue was the onset date. Plaintiff contends that in suggesting he had already determined Plaintiff's disability, the ALJ limited the discussion at the hearing to when the disability began. Had Plaintiff known the ALJ was still considering the issue of whether Plaintiff was currently disabled, Plaintiff would have presented additional evidence. As a result, Plaintiff argues he was not afforded the full and fair hearing he constitutionally deserves. See 42 U.S.C. ยง405(b)(1) (providing claimant a right to a hearing at which witnesses may testify and evidence ...

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