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Bijold v. Astrue

April 24, 2009

JON S. BIJOLD, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

This action was filed by Jon Bijold ("Plaintiff") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying the Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Now before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 11 and 13). The parties have filed briefs in support of their respective motions (Docket No. 12 and 14). Upon analysis and consideration of each submission, and as set forth herein, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge is affirmed.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on July 14, 2005, alleging disability due to severe depression beginning on December 31, 2001. (Docket No. 9-1 at 64-72 ; R. at 62-70, Docket No. 9-3 at 3-15; R. at 258-271)(hereinafter as "R. at ___"). Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on October 17, 2005, and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on October 31, 2006. (R. at 41-44, 272-275, 303-334). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel. (R. at 303-334). Additionally, a Vocational Expert ("VE") was present and gave testimony. (Id.) On August 13, 2007, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff had the mental ability to work and could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and concluded that Plaintiff was "not disabled" under the Act. (R. at 15-24). On August 4, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at 5-8). Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action on September 4, 2008. (Docket No.1). Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on January 5, 2009 (Docket No. 11), and the Commissioner filed a motion for summary judgment on January 26, 2009 (Docket No. 13).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing a decision denying DIB and SSI, the district court's role is limited to determining whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart,312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)(quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, if the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390. A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision nor re-weigh evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706.

To be eligible for social security benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

The ALJ must utilize a five-step sequential analysis when evaluating the disability status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404 subpt. P., appx. 1; (4) whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4).

If the claimant is determined to be unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner (Step 5) to prove that, given plaintiffs's mental or physical limitations, age, education, and work experience, he or she is able to perform substantial gainful activity in jobs available in the national economy. Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986).

III. FACTUAL HISTORY

At the time of the ALJ's decision Plaintiff was thirty-two years old. (R. at 62, 258). Plaintiff was twenty-six years old at the alleged onset of the disability and is therefore classified as a "younger individual" under 20 C.F.R. §§404.1562 and 416.963. (Id.) Plaintiff graduated from high school in a special education curriculum and is literate and can communicate in English. (R. at 22). Plaintiff had previously been employed in various laborer positions from 1996 through 2004. (R. at 91-98). The ALJ held that the amount of Plaintiff's earnings from the date claiming disability did not exceed the primary guideline for determining substantial gainful activity. (R. at 17).

Plaintiff reported that he first began treatment for depression in 2002 with his family physicians, Dr. Gunter and Dr. Ryan. (R. at 111-117, 162-166). On August 13, 2003, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Ryan. (R. at 177). Plaintiff's complaints were lack of energy, lack of interest, excessive sleep and feeling "down and out." Id. Dr. Ryan noted that Plaintiff had a depressed mood, impaired insight, and flat affect, but also adequate judgment, no evidence of bizarre thoughts or behavior and no ideas of self-harm (R. at 178). Dr. Ryan diagnosed Plaintiff with Schizo-Affective Disorder*fn1 and found a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") estimate of 45.*fn2 (R. at 179). Dr. Ryan recommended that Plaintiff begin taking Paxil and start attending a counseling service. Id.

Dr. Ryan's notes from September 24, 2004 state that Plaintiff had been on Lexapro since February of 2004 and was functioning "awesome" day to day. (R. at 182). On December 13, 2004, Dr. Guntur noted that Plaintiff's depression was pretty well under control and that he did not have any suicidal ideas. (R. at 230). On January 31, 2005, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Margaret McKinley of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination. She recorded that Plaintiff still felt depressed although taking medication, felt tired frequently and had poor concentration. (R. at 184-185). Dr. McKinley found Plaintiff to have Depressive Disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) and to have a GAF score of 55.*fn3 (R. at 186). Dr. McKinley's prognosis was that Plaintiff would benefit from ongoing medication treatment although the likelihood of substantial improvement was guarded. Id. Dr. McKinley found Plaintiff to be capable of managing his own finances although Plaintiff appeared to have difficulty remaining on task and seemed to do very little. Id. For the Pennsylvania Disability Determination, Dr. McKinley found Plaintiff to have moderate restrictions in all work related activities based upon a sporadic and poor work history, and an inability to maintain regular employment. (R. at 188-89). However, Dr. McKinley also found Plaintiff to be able to manage benefits in his own best interest. Id.

Dr. Guntur's notes state that Plaintiff's depression remained under control during a check-up on February 21, 2005. (R. at 231). Dr Guntur reported that Plaintiff's June 2005 check-up indicated that Lexapro was controlling Plaintiff's depression and temperament. (R. at 206). Despite this, Plaintiff stated that Lexapro made him so tired that he could not do anything. (R. at 79, 82). Dr Guntur also reported that Plaintiff's psychomotor activity was average and not very good, his social and test judgment was average and his insight average to poor. (R. at 207). Dr. Guntur determined that Plaintiff was moderately to severely depressed, and that his depression was moderately to substantially ...


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