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Oldenburgh v. Astrue

March 26, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Muir

(Complaint Filed 9/8/08)



The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Douglas A. Oldenburgh's applications for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and "insured," that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. 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 Oldenburg's insured status expired on September 30, 2003. In order to establish entitlement to disability insurance benefits Oldenburg 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). Supplemental security income is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind and disabled individuals who have little or no income. Insured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant's eligibility for supplemental security income benefits.

Oldenburgh, who was born on September 1, 1953, claims that he became disabled on July 31, 2001, because of heart problems, diabetes, arthritis, back problems, and a left shoulder injury. Tr. 153.*fn1 At the time of the onset of his alleged disability, Oldenburgh had been employed as a computer technician for Client Logic Corporation, which had a corporate address of 699 Hertel Avenue, Buffalo, New York. Tr. 110 and 130-131. Oldenburgh "took calls from customers" who had "computer problems [and] helped them solve the problem[s]." Tr. 131. Furthermore, he "[a]nswere[d] tech questions about internet access" and "operated a windows based computer and phone equipment." Tr. 123. It is not clear in which state Oldenburgh was residing at the time he worked for Client Logic Corporation. He at one point resided in New Mexico but as of September 21, 2001, he had a mailing address of Union City, Tennessee. Tr. 91. Oldenburgh also had prior employment as a delivery driver, sports official, real estate sales person, insurance salesman, concrete delivery driver, and a supervisor at an automobile body repair shop. Tr. 114, 130-137 and 204-211.

On September 24, 2003, Oldenburgh protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. Tr. 15 and 64-67.*fn2 After his claims were denied initially and after his motion for reconsideration was denied, a hearing was held on March 2, 2006, before an administrative law judge. Tr. 31-39 and 740-809. On April 19, 2006, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Oldenburgh's applications for benefits. Tr. 15-22. On June 20, 2006, Oldenburgh filed a request for review of the decision with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration. Tr. 9-11. On July 7, 2008, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Oldenburgh's request for review. Tr. 6-8. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

On September 8, 2008, Oldenburgh filed a complaint in this court requesting that we reverse the decision of the Commissioner denying him disability benefits. On the same day the Clerk of Court assigned responsibility for this case to the undersigned judge for disposition.

On November 13, 2008, the Commissioner filed a 7-page answer to the complaint and a copy of the administrative record consisting of 804 pages. On February 2, 2009, Oldenburgh filed his brief and on March 6, 2009, the Commissioner filed his brief. The appeal*fn3 became ripe for disposition on March 13, 2009, when Oldenburgh filed a reply brief.

Because of the administrative law judge's failure, inter alia, to comply with Social Security Ruling 82-41 which failure we will discuss below, this case will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.*fn4

When considering a social security appeal, we have plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security, 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); 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). However, 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." Id.; Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). Factual findings which are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001)("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981)("Findings of fact by the Secretary must be accepted as conclusive by a reviewing court if supported by substantial evidence."); Keefe v. Shalala, 71 F.3d 1060, 1062 (2d Cir. 1995); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 & 1529 n.11 (11th Cir. 1990).

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)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security, 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Brown, 845 F.2d at 1213. In an adequately developed factual record substantial evidence may be "something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo v. Federal Maritime Commission, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record," Cotter, 642 F.2d at 706, 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, 529 F.3d at 203; 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).

Another critical requirement is that the Commissioner adequately develop the record. Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)("The ALJ has an obligation to develop the record in light of the non-adversarial nature of benefits proceedings, regardless of whether the claimant is represented by counsel."); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 557 (3d Cir. 2005); Fraction v. Bowen, 787 F.2d 451, 454 (8th Cir. 1986); Reed v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 838, 841 (9th Cir. 2001); Smith v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 433. 437 (7th Cir. 2000); see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2085 (2000)("It is the ALJ's duty to investigate the facts and develop the arguments both for and against granting benefits[.]"). If the record is not adequately developed, remand for further proceedings is appropriate. Id.

To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate 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 ...

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