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Thomas v. Astrue

March 26, 2009

DANIELLE THOMAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM RE: SOCIAL SECURITY APPEAL

Plaintiff, Danielle Thomas ("Thomas," "Plaintiff"), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner," "Defendant") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(c) (2000). Jurisdiction is established under § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates § 405(g) of the Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. Background and Procedural History

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff is a 31-year-old female who can communicate in English and has completed her General Educational Development ("GED"). (R. 18, 47, 59). At all times relevant to this claim, Plaintiff was a "younger individual between the ages of 18 and 44." 20 C.F.R. § 416.963.

Plaintiff protectively filed this application for benefits on November 29, 2005. (R. 17).

She had previously filed a Title XVI application on August 13, 1999, which was denied without appeal; a Title II application on February 25, 2005, which was given a technical disposition; and a Title XVI application on February 25, 2005, which was denied without appeal. (R. 17).*fn1

Plaintiff's current application was initially denied by the Commissioner on May 15, 2006. (R. 35). Plaintiff, represented at the time, filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on January 9, 2007 before ALJ Owen Katzman (R. 203-227). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application on March 7, 2007, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Act. (R. 22). Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's obesity combined with mild right knee osteoarthritis, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus were considered severe impairments, but these impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (R. 23). The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff could perform the full range of sedentary work, and based on her exertional capacity, age, education, and work experience, she was "not disabled" under 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, Medical-Vocational Rule 201.27. (R. 23).

Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council denied her request for review on April 3, 2008. (R. 5). Plaintiff subsequently filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision on May 20, 2008. (Doc. 3). Plaintiff filed this Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 7) on the appeal, which is presently before this Court.

B. Plaintiff's Work History, Medical Conditions, and Treatment

Plaintiff has no past relevant work experience. (R. 23). Her only prior employment was a three-month position as a telemarketer in 2001, from which she was laid off. (R. 77, 207).

Plaintiff alleged the following impairments in her November 2005 application for benefits: asthma, high blood pressure and obesity, feet swelling, shortness of breath, and diabetes. (R. 76). She claimed an alleged onset date of November 29, 2005. (R. 73). In Plaintiff's appeal of her denial of benefits, she alleged a new diagnosis of sleep apnea beginning March 2006. (R. 99-100). In his decision, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff alleged the following impairments: obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, asthma, knee pain, and peripheral edema.*fn2 (R. 18).

The Record establishes that Plaintiff is morbidly obese, with her highest recorded weight at 548 pounds in March and April of 2006. (R. 126, 142, 148). Plaintiff has consulted with several physicians regarding her ailments as reflected in the Record. Plaintiff saw Dr. Fontanilla at the Philadelphia Department of Health clinic periodically between 2003 and 2006 for complaints including asthma, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and sleep apnea. (R. 116-24; 159-65). Dr. Warren, of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination, performed a disability examination of Plaintiff in April 2005 and determined that Plaintiff "has morbid obesity with secondary complications such as hypertension, fatigue and low back pain." (R. 125-31). In September 2005, Dr. Fontanilla performed a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Employability Re-assessment Form, finding Plaintiff temporarily disabled from September 19, 2005 until August 1, 2006. (R. 157-58). In March 2006, Dr. DeLisser performed a CPAP titration of Plaintiff to assess its effect on Plaintiff's obstructive sleep apnea. (R. 139-46). In April 2006, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Nichols, who ordered an x-ray of Plaintiff's knee. (R. 147-48). Dr. Nichols stated that Plaintiff had a "history of morbid obesity as well as many of it's [sic] complications; including Diabetes, Sleep Apnea, Hypertension, and likely osteoarthritis." (R. 148). The x-ray revealed "mild osteoarthritic changes involving the medial lateral joint compartments." (R. 149). Finally, Plaintiff saw Dr. Wood of the J. Edwin Wood Clinic between September 2006 and January 2007, who listed Plaintiff's active problems as HTN (hypertension), NIDDM (non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus), obstructive sleep apnea, asthma, and obesity. (R. 171-196; 184). During this period, Plaintiff was taking metformin for diabetes and hydrochlorothiazide, which is used for edema and high blood pressure. (R. 144, 147, 171).

Plaintiff received a Physical Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") Assessment on May 20, 2005 from a Disability Determination Services ("DDS") examiner. (R. 132-38). Plaintiff had a second RFC performed by DDS on May 2, 2006. (R. 151-56). In April 2005, Dr. Warren performed a Medical Source Statement of Claimant's Ability to Perform Work-Related Physical Activities. (R. 129-30). In January 2007, Dr. Giron of the Wood Clinic performed a Medical Assessment of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities (Physical) of Plaintiff. (R. 193-96).

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

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). A district court may enter a judgment "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." Id.

On judicial review of the 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)). Substantial evidence is "'more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.'" Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 (quoting Ginsburg v. Richardson, 436 F.2d 1146, 1148 (3d Cir. 1971)). 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)). The substantial evidence standard "is deferential and includes deference to inferences drawn from the facts if they, in turn, are supported by substantial evidence." Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429,431 (3d Cir. 1999). Despite the deference given to administrative decisions regarding disability benefits, reviewing courts "retain a responsibility to scrutinize the entire record and to reverse or remand if the [Commissioner]'s decision is not supported by substantial evidence." Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981)).

As for the legal standards applied in the case, this Court's review is plenary. See Allen v. Barnhart, 417 F.3d 396, 398 (3d Cir. 2005).

III. Discussion

A. Social Security Disability ...


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