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Purnell v. Astrue

August 26, 2009

CALVIN PURNELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert F. Kelly, Sr. J.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff, Calvin Purnell ("Purnell"), filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.*fn1 Thereafter, on October 15, 2007, the Honorable Bruce W. Kauffman, to whom this matter was originally assigned, referred the case to United States Magistrate Judge Arnold C. Rapoport for a Report and Recommendation ("R & R"). The Magistrate Judge filed an R & R on February 14, 2008.*fn2 Subsequently, on July 15, 2009, this case was reassigned from Judge Kauffman to me. For the reasons explained below, I will adopt the R & R in part and deny it in part, and grant summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner.

I. BACKGROUND

Purnell is a forty-one (41) year-old male born on September 28, 1964. (Tr. 50). He has a general equivalency diploma ("GED"), and has no relevant past work experience. (Tr. 186). Purnell alleges disability as of January 14, 1999 due to hearing loss, diabetes, arm and neck pain, and depression. (Tr. 189-190).

Purnell's application for benefits was denied initially, and he then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was commenced on November 10, 2004, at which Purnell, represented by counsel, testified, along with a witness on his behalf, and a vocational expert ("VE"). (Tr. 180-203). In a decision dated December 23, 2004, the ALJ determined that Purnell "has a severe bilateral ankle disorder, a severe cervical spine disorder, severe insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, and severe depression." (Tr. 21). The ALJ, however, found that Purnell retained the residual functional capacity to "perform a restricted range of light work (Tr. 22). Purnell was, thus, determined to be not disabled and not entitled to benefits under the Act. The ALJ's findings became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Purnell's request for review on July 13, 2006. (Tr. 6-8). Purnell then appealed the final decision to this Court on September 18, 2006.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The role of this Court, on judicial review, is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Pierce v. Underwood, 587 U.S. 552 (1988). "Substantial evidence" is not "a large or significant amount of evidence but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion." Id. at 664-65. "The Court is bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999).

To establish a disability under the Social Security Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any 'substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57 (3d Cir. 1988), quoting Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir.1987); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1) (1982). A claimant can establish such a disability in either of two ways: (1) by producing medical evidence that one is disabled per se as a result of meeting or equaling certain listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Regulation No. 4, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (1987); see Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1987); Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; or (2) by demonstrating an impairment of such severity as to be unable to engage in "any kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Heckler, 461 U.S. at 461; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

This method of proving disability requires that the claimant first show inability to return to former work due to a physical or mental impairment. Once a claimant has demonstrated inability to perform former work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is some other kind of substantial gainful employment claimant is able to perform, taking into consideration the claimant's physical ability, age, education and work experience. See Kangas, 823 F.2d at 877; Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

This case was decided under the medical-vocational regulations which require a five-step sequential evaluation of disability claims. See Heckler, 461 U.S. at 461; Santise v. Schweiker, 676 F.2d 925 (3d Cir. 1982). The sequential evaluation considers in turn current work activity, the severity of impairments, and the ability to perform past work and vocational factors. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. In this case, the Commissioner reached the fifth step of the evaluation and determined that Purnell is capable of performing limited light work.

III. THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

In his R & R, Magistrate Judge Rapoport opined that the ALJ's decision was only partially supported by substantial evidence, and recommended that this matter be remanded back to the ALJ for further consideration. Magistrate Judge Rapoport first determined that Purnell's claim that he is suffering with a disabling mental impairment had no merit, and that the "ALJ's determination of Purnell's mental impairments was supported by substantial evidence." (R & R at 10-11). We agree with the Magistrate Judge's rationale with regard to this issue, and we need not discuss it further.

Purnell also argued that the "ALJ failed to properly credit his subjective complaints of pain, which were corroborated by Ms. Brittingham."*fn3 (R & R at 12). The Magistrate Judge noted that the ALJ found that, based on the evidence, the "statements of the claimant regarding the severity of his symptoms*fn4 and their impact on his ability to work are somewhat overstated and cannot be fully credited." (Id.). The Magistrate Judge, however, found that the "ALJ's partial credibility determination was not supported by substantial evidence." (Id. at 13). He reasoned that the "radiology reports showed degenerative changes in both ankles, as well as multi-level spinal degenerative changes, including a disc herniation with moderate to severe stenosis at C5-6, and mild to moderate stenosis at two other levels," and that these "objectively determined impairments were enough to necessitate the use of prescribed narcotic pain medication." (Id.) The Magistrate Judge further stated that Purnell testified at the administrative hearing that he saw an orthopedic surgeon one week before the hearing for his spinal problems, and that that specialist told him that he "definitely" needed surgery for his neck and back." (Tr. 193). Magistrate Judge Rapoport concluded that:

In finding that Purnell's condition necessitated only 'conservative' rather than surgical treatment, the ALJ ignored this evidence without any explanation. In addition, Purnell testified that his pain prevents his ability to dress himself and care for his physical surroundings (R. 195), and the prescribed pain medication causes drowsiness (R. 191). As pain at the level described by the Plaintiff is consistent with the objective medical findings of moderate to severe disc disease and the use of medication, I recommend that ...


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