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Isaac v. Astrue

May 28, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge

Electronically Filed


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Catherine Isaac ("Plaintiff") 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 her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 U.S.C. §1381, et.seq. Consistent with the customary practice in the Western District of Pennsylvania, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the record developed during the administrative proceedings. Doc. Nos. 8 and 10.

Upon consideration of the Commissioner's decision, the parties' motions for summary judgment and accompanying briefs, and the evidence contained in the administrative record, the Court finds that the determination of the Commissioner should be remanded to the administrative law judge ("ALJ"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), for further consideration. Specifically, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to afford Plaintiff a heightened duty of care and, furthermore, failed to fully develop the administrative record before making his determination. Therefore, the Court will grant Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and deny the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for SSI on February 15, 2006, with a protective filing date of January 9, 2006, alleging disability due to fibromyalgia, depression and emotional distress, including anxiety and panic attacks, with an alleged onset date of January 1, 2005. R. at 51, 56.After the initial denial of Plaintiff's application by the state agency, she filed a timely request for a hearing before an ALJ on November 11, 2006. R. at 29. On December 5, 2006, Plaintiff submitted a "Waiver of Your Right to Personal Appearance Before an Administrative Law Judge." On said waiver, Plaintiff stated that she did not want to appear in person at the hearing for the following reasons: "I have no transportation to get to Pittsburgh if the hearing is scheduled there. I would also no have child care for my children on the day of the hearing." R. at 28.

Without holding an administrative hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on March 3, 2008 that was unfavorable to Plaintiff. R. at 20. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled for the relevant time period under §1641(a)(3)(A) of the SSA. Id. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's determination was denied by the Appeals Council on October 7, 2008. 1-4, 10.

On December 8, 2008, Plaintiff commenced an action against the Commissioner by filing a complaint in this Court. Doc. No. 3. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment and brief in support on April 6, 2009. Doc. Nos. 8 and 9. The Commissioner likewise filed a motion for summary judgment and brief in support on April 6, 2009. Doc. Nos. 10 and 11. Said motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. Statement of the Case

In his decision, dated March 3, 2008, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 9, 2006, the application date (20 C.F.R. 416.920(b) and 416.971 et.seq.).

2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: dysthymic disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder and social phobia (20 C.F.R. 416.920(c)).

3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).

4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: cannot perform complex- multi-step tasks. She thus has the residual functional capacity for a full range of unskilled work at all exertional levels. She is thus not disabled under the framework of medical-vocational rule 204.00 and pursuant to the Social Security Ruling 85-15.

5. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 416.965).

6. The claimant was born on April 20, 1966 and was 38 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed (20 C.F.R. 416.963).

7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 416.964).

8. Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant is limited to unskilled work (20 C.F.R. 416.968).

9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. 416.960(c) and 416.966).

10. The claimant has not be under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since January 9, 2006, the date the application was filed (20 C.F.R. 416.920(g)).

R. 16- 20. Additionally, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily waived her right to personally appear and testify at a hearing. R. 14. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to adhere to the heightened duty owed to Plaintiff, an unrepresented claimant at the time of the administrative hearing. R. 21.

IV. Standards of Review

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)*fn1 and 1383(c)(3)*fn2 . Section 405(g) permits a district court to review transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based. Because the standards for eligibility under Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, regarding standards under Title XVI; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f, regarding Supplemental Security Income, or "SSI"), regulations and decisions rendered under the Title II disability standard, 42 U.S.C. § 423, are pertinent and applicable in Title XVI decisions rendered under 42 U.S.C. § 1381(a). Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 n. 3 (1990); Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 119 n.1 (3d Cir. 2002).

Substantial Evidence

If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995); Wallace v. Secretary of HHS, 722 F.2d 1150, 1152 (3d Cir. 1983). The district court's function is to determine whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. See Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir.1994) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The Supreme Court has explained that "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence, and is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 ...

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