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Pryor v. Astrue

March 27, 2009

LARRY M. PRYOR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David Stewart Cercone United States District Judge

Electronic Filing

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Larry M. Pryor ("Pryor") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the record has been developed at the administrative level. For the reasons that follow, the administrative decision made by the Commissioner in this case will be vacated, and the case will be remanded for further administrative proceedings consistent with this opinion.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Pryor applied for DIB on October 27, 2004, alleging disability as of October 14, 2004. R. 44. The claim was denied by the state agency on February 2, 2005. R. 27. Pryor filed a timely request for an administrative hearing on March 8, 2005. R. 31. On September 28, 2006, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge Michael Colligan (the "ALJ"). R. 377. Pryor, who was unrepresented, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 379-387. Dr. Noel Plummer ("Dr. Plummer"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 385-386. In a decision dated December 21, 2006, the ALJ determined that Pryor was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 12-20. The Appeals Council denied Pryor's request for review on January 4, 2008, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 4. Pryor commenced this action on February 29, 2008, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's administrative decision. Doc. No. 1. Pryor and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment on June 8, 2008, and July 9, 2008, respectively. Doc. Nos. 5 & 8. These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

Pryor was born on May 25, 1961, making him forty-five years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. R. 12, 382. He was a "younger person" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). He served in the United States Army from October 5, 1984, through May 5, 1992.

R. 44. In late 1990 and early 1991, he was stationed in Saudi Arabia in connection with Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.*fn1 During his time in the military, Pryor worked as a cook. R. 383. After his discharge from military service, Pryor worked as a housekeeper at a Veterans Administration ("VA") hospital. Id. He continued to work at the VA hospital until October 4, 2004, when the Office of Personnel Management ("OPM") approved his application for disability retirement and directed the Department of Veterans Affairs ("Department") to separate him from government service. R. 62. On that date, Pryor was informed in a letter that his annuity payments could not begin until the OPM received confirmation that he had applied for benefits under the Social Security Act. Id. In a rating decision dated October 15, 2004, the Department determined that Pryor had been suffering from a "generalized anxiety disorder" that was 100% disabling since October 18, 2001. R. 63. The Department had previously deemed this impairment to be 50% disabling. Id. Pryor's cessation of work activity and subsequent application for DIB were evidently triggered by the OPM's letter of October 4, 2004. R. 383.

IV. 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 clearly 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, 565,108 S.Ct. 2541, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988)(internal quotation marks omitted). 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 [or her] 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 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is considered to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity "only if his [or her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To support his or her ultimate findings, an administrative law judge must do more than simply state factual conclusions. He or she must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). The administrative law judge must consider all medical evidence contained in the record and 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 legislatively delegated rulemaking authority, has promulgated 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 recently 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." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines 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. §§ 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. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c).

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25, 124 S.Ct. 376, 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (2003)(footnotes omitted).

In an action in which review of an administrative determination is sought, the agency's decision cannot be affirmed on a ground other than that actually relied upon by the agency in making its decision. In Securities & Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corporation, 332 U.S. 194, 196, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947), the Supreme Court explained:

When the case was first here, we emphasized a simple but fundamental rule of administrative law. That rule is to the effect that a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency. If those grounds are inadequate or improper, the court is powerless to affirm the administrative action by substituting what it considers to be a more adequate or proper basis. To do so would propel the court into the domain which Congress has set aside exclusively for the administrative agency.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recognized the applicability of this rule in the Social Security disability context. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 44, n. 7 (3d Cir. 2001). Thus, the Court's review is limited to the four corners of the ALJ's decision.

V. DISCUSSION

In his decision, the ALJ observed that Pryor had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of October 14, 2004. R. 17. Pryor was found to be suffering from an anxiety disorder, a personality disorder, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hypertension and sinusitis. Id. His anxiety disorder and personality disorder were deemed to be "severe" for purposes of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and 404.1520(c), while the remaining impairments were deemed to be "non-severe." Id. The ALJ determined that Pryor's impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listing of Impairments"). R. 18. In accordance with 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545, the ALJ assessed Pryor's residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform work at all levels of exertion. Nonexertionally, he can perform simple routine tasks in a low stress environment that do not entail more than minimal contact with the public.

Id. Given this assessment, the ALJ concluded that Pryor could return to his past relevant work as a housekeeper. R. 20. The ALJ also concluded that Pryor could work in various cleaning, janitorial or food preparation jobs. R. 20, 386. Dr. Plummer's testimony established that these additional jobs existed in the national economy for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). R. 386.

Pryor challenges the ALJ's disregard for the determinations made by the OPM and the Department, the ALJ's reliance on opinions rendered by Dr. Stephen Perconte, Ph.D., and Raymond Dalton ("Dalton"), and the ALJ's credibility assessment at the administrative hearing. Doc. No. 6, pp. 11-19. His third argument, which concerns the ALJ's assessment of his credibility at the hearing, centers on the ALJ's failure to adequately develop the administrative record. Id., pp. 18-19. Since it is that issue which most clearly warrants a remand in this case, it will be addressed first. The remaining two issues will be addressed thereafter.

This case is controlled by the decisions of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403 (3d Cir. 1979), Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34 (3d Cir. 2001), and Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376 (3d Cir. 2003). In Dobrowolsky, the Court of Appeals recognized that an ALJ "must assume a more active role when the claimant is unrepresented" in order to ensure that the record is fully developed. Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 407. In Fargnoli, the Court of Appeals declared that a remand for further administrative proceedings is warranted where an ALJ fails to adequately explain the weight given to conflicting medical evidence contained in the record. Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 42. Reefer involved a confluence of the issues involved in Dobrowolsky and Fargnoli, as the Court of Appeals found a remand necessary where an ALJ had both failed to assist a pro se litigant in developing the testimonial record and neglected to explain the weight given to conflicting portions of the documentary record. Reefer, 326 F.3d at 379-382. The ALJ's treatment of this case both at the hearing and in his opinion was woefully inadequate to satisfy the standards enunciated in Dobrowolsky, Fargnoli and Reefer.

"Social Security proceedings are inquisitorial rather than adversarial." Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 110-111, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 147 L.Ed.2d 80 (2000)(plurality opinion). At an administrative hearing, "[i]t is the ALJ's duty to investigate the facts and develop the arguments both for and against granting benefits." Id. at 111. This duty requires the ALJ to proceed with "a heightened level of care" when a claimant appears pro se. Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 407. Implicit within this "heightened level of care" is an affirmative obligation to assist the claimant in developing a complete administrative record. Reefer, 326 F.3d at 380. The pro se status of a claimant does not convert the ALJ's role into that of the claimant's advocate. Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1377 (10th Cir. 1992). Where the claimant has been informed of his or her right to counsel and knowingly elects to proceed without counsel, his or her pro se status is not itself a basis for remanding the case for a new hearing.*fn2 Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 407. ...


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