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Roberts v. Astrue

September 30, 2009

WAYNE B. ROBERTS, 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

I. Introduction

Wayne Roberts, ("Plaintiff"), brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), which denied his application for Disability Income Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §201, et. seq.

II. Background

A. Factual Background

Plaintiff was born on August 16, 1948. As of his date of last insured, he was forty-eight years old. Plaintiff has a high school education. He served in the United States Army and saw active duty from 1969 to 1970, then remained in the Army Reserves until 1975. Plaintiff last worked in January 1991 as a chipper/welder at Shenango, Inc. He left the position due to a work-related knee injury and has not been employed since that date. His date of last insured for purposes of DIB is December 31, 1996. T. 47.

Initially, in his application for benefits, Plaintiff alleged disability as of January 9, 1991 due to osteotomy of the left leg and degenerative arthritis of the left knee join. Additionally, in his motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff alleges disability due to Grade III chondral lesion of the medial femoral condyle of the left knee and torn lateral meniscus of the left knee. (Document No. 15 at 5).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed a first application for DIB on August 9, 1999, T. 81-83, which was initially denied by the Commissioner on August 17, 1999. T. 61. Plaintiff claimed disability as a result of osteotomy of the left leg and degenerative arthritis of the left knee joint, with an alleged onset date of January 9, 1991. T. 91. By decision of an administrative law judge ("ALJ") dated June 28, 2000, Plaintiff's claim was denied. T. 21-28. The Appeals Council affirmed the decision of the ALJ by order dated December 12, 2000. Id. ; T. 6-7.

Plaintiff filed the application at issue in this case on February 13, 2006, alleging again that he became disabled on January 9, 1991. T. 47. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied by the Commissioner on March 18, 2006, Id., and again after reconsideration on April 15, 2006. Id. Plaintiff filed a first request for a hearing before an ALJ on April 18, 2006. T.57. The request was originally dismissed on the basis of res judicata. T. 29-30. The Appeals Council vacated the dismissal and remanded the case to an ALJ, on grounds that res judicata did not apply because the Social Security Administration's criteria for listed musculoskeletal impairments had changed since the original June 28, 2000 determination. T. 47. Plaintiff thereafter filed a timely request for a hearing before an ALJ on November 15, 2006. T. 58. A hearing was held on April 9, 2007. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared at the hearing and testified. T. 431-456. Additionally, the ALJ heard testimony from an impartial vocational expert. T. 452-54.

The ALJ determined, by decision dated May 15, 2007, that Plaintiff was not disabled through December 31, 1996, his date of last insured. T. 47-53. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the ability to perform a range of sedentary work limited to work that did not involve use of scaffolds or ladders or more than occasional other climbing and that did not involve any balancing, kneeling or crawling, or more than occasional stooping or crouching, and that allowed a sit/stand option. T. 50. Thus, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review the decision of the ALJ on March 12, 2008, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. T. 8-9.

Plaintiff thereafter filed a Complaint in this Court on May 8, 2008, seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner. (Document No. 1). As is this customary practice in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. In his brief in support of his motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to the date last insured. The Commissioner, in response, argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination. The Court agrees with the Commissioner. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, (Document No. 11), and deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. (Document No. 15).

III. Standard of Review

The Social Security Act limits this Court's review of disability claims to the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). If said decision is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Security, 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 391 (1971); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). It means more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Stunkard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

In determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920. This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to his or her past relevant work, and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work. See 42 U.S.C. §404.1520; Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Security, 220 F.3d 112, 118-19 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999)).

To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1). This may be done in two ways:

(1) by introducing medical evidence that the claimant is disabled per se because he or she suffers from one or more of a number of serious impairments delineated in 20 C.F.R. Reg. No. 4, Subpt. P, Appdx. 1. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1983); Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; or

(2) in the event that claimant suffers from a less severe impairment, by demonstrating that he or she is nevertheless unable to engage in "any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy ." Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461 (citing 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A)).

In order to prove disability under the second method, a claimant must first demonstrate the existence of a medically determinable disability that precludes a plaintiff from returning to his or her former job. Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777. Once it is shown that claimant is unable to resume his or her previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that, give claimant'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. Stunkard, 842 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979).

Where a claimant has multiple impairments that may not individually reach the level of severity necessary to qualify for any one impairment for Listed Impairment status, the Commissioner nevertheless must consider all of the impairments in combination to determine whether, collectively, they meet or equal the severity of a Listed Impairment. Bailey v. Sullivan, 885 F.2d 52 (3d Cir. 1989) ("in determining an individual's eligibility for benefits, the Secretary shall consider the combined effect of all of the individual's impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of such severity").

IV. The ALJ's Determination

In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act, after an analysis of each of the five steps of the sequential evaluation process. In making this determination, the ALJ concluded that: (1) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date (January 9, 1991), through his date of last insured (December 31, 1996); (2) Plaintiff suffered from one severe impairment: degenerative arthritis of the left knee; (3) Plaintiff's degenerative arthritis of the left knee did not satisfy the criteria of Listing 1.02 or Listing 1.03 because it did not result in an "inability to ambulate effectively" as required by both Listings; (4) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform work at the sedentary level, with the additional limitations that Plaintiff not be required to use scaffolds or ladders, or be required to do any balancing, kneeling, crawling, or more than occasional climbing, stooping, or crouching, and allows a sit/ stand option; (5) Plaintiff did not have the residual functional capacity, prior to the date of last insured, to return to past ...


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