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Davis v. Astrue

October 5, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McVerry, J.


Acting pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c) Georgia Louise Davis ("Davis" or "plaintiff") seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "defendant") which disallowed her claim for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.

Davis was born on August 27, 1953. (R. 193). She dropped out of high school in ninth grade and, despite attending some classes, was unsuccessful in her efforts to obtain her General Equivalency Diploma ("GED"). (R. 21; 195). She completed a Certified Nursing Assistant ("CNA") program in 1972. (R. 158; 195). Davis' work history consists of working as a nursing assistant at a healthcare facility from 1976 until 1983, a nursing assistant at a hospital in 1984, a home health aide from 1999 until 2001, and housekeeping and maintenance in 2003. (R. 171). Because Davis' annual earnings were not substantial, however, the ALJ determined that she had no past relevant work. (R. 20).

Davis protectively filed a claim for SSI on June 16, 2005, in which she asserted disability beginning on June 1, 2005, resulting from depression and arthritis in her knee, back, back and hips. (R. 78-80). Davis' claim was denied on initial review, and she requested a hearing. (R. 42; 52). A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on January 9, 2008, via videoconference, during which claimant was represented by counsel and appeared and testified.

(R. 403-22). An impartial vocational expert ("VE") was also present, but did not testify.

On April 10, 2008, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision regarding Davis' claim, taking administrative notice that, considering her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform.*fn1 (R. 21). The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Davis was not disabled under the Act.*fn2 (R. 21-22). On May 14, 2008, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 4-6).

Administrative remedies thus being exhausted, Davis brought the instant matter before this court, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. The parties have each filed motions for summary judgment together with supporting briefs, and the matter is now ripe for disposition.

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), cert. denied, 482 U.S. 905 (1987). 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, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 2545 (1988). 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 [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 [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [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).

To support his ultimate findings, the Commissioner must do more than simply state factual conclusions. He must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). An 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 (2003)(footnotes omitted). Hence, as a general matter, a claimant seeking benefits under the Act may establish the existence of a statutory disability by (1) introducing medical evidence that she is per se disabled as a result of an impairment appearing in the Listing of Impairments or (2) demonstrating that the functional limitations caused by her impairments effectively preclude her from returning to her past relevant ...

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