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Burkett v. Astrue

April 15, 2009

DELMAS R. BURKETT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Delmas R. Burkett ("Burkett") brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") partially denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433]. For the reasons that follow, the portion of the administrative decision at issue in this case will be reversed, and the case will be remanded to the Commissioner for a calculation of the benefits owed to Burkett.

II. Background

Burkett was born on July 12, 1942. (R. 42). He is a high school graduate. ( Id. ). He has past relevant work experience as a fence erector.*fn1 He worked in that capacity until January 21, 2004, when he sustained a work-related injury. (R. 50).

Burkett protectively applied for DIB on April 5, 2004, alleging that he had become disabled on January 21, 2004. (R. 154-157). The state agency denied the application on September 13, 2004. (R. 107). Burkett responded on October 26, 2004, by filing a request for an administrative hearing. (R. 112). On September 20, 2005, an administrative hearing was held in DuBois, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge Douglas W. Abruzzo (the "ALJ"). (R. 36). Burkett, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (R. 38-97). Testimony was also taken from Irene Montgomery ("Montgomery"), an impartial vocational expert. (R. 75-94). In a decision dated February 15, 2006, the ALJ determined that Burkett had been "disabled" within the meaning of the Act since November 18, 2005, but that he had not been statutorily disabled prior to that date. (R. 17-26). The Appeals Council denied Burkett's request for review on April 25, 2008, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. (R. 6). Burkett commenced this action against the Commissioner on June 27, 2008, seeking judicial review of the portion of the administrative decision that had been unfavorable to him. (Doc. No. 1). The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on December 8, 2008. (Doc. Nos. 8 & 10). These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

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 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 Corp. , 332 U.S. 194, 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.

Chenery Corp. , 332 U.S. at 196. 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.

IV. Discussion

Because the ALJ determined that Burkett was disabled as of November 18, 2005, only the period of time commencing on January 21, 2004, and ending on November 17, 2005, is presently at issue. It is undisputed that Burkett has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of January 21, 2004. In his decision, the ALJ found Burkett to be suffering from a fracture of the left knee and tibia, impingement of the L4 and L5 nerve roots, and a heart condition. (R. 22-23). Burkett's fracture of the left knee and tibia and impingement of the L4 and L5 nerve roots were deemed to be "severe" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), while his heart condition was deemed to be "non-severe." ( Id. ). These impairments did not meet or medically equal an ...


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