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Aguglia v. Astrue

October 19, 2009

BIAGIO AGUGLIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

Electronically Filed

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Biagio Aguglia ("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 his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II 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. 6 and 8.

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") for rehearing, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), for further consideration. The Court will, therefore, grant Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and deny the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for DIB on January 12, 2006, alleging disability as a result of a back condition, with an alleged onset date of May 18, 2005. R.59- 62 ,75-79. After his claim was initially denied by the Commissioner, Plaintiff filed a timely request for an administrative hearing on August 7, 2006. R. 58. A hearing was held before an ALJ on November 16, 2007, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. R. 27- 47. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on December 12, 2007, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the meaning of the SSA. R. 19-24. Plaintiff thereafter filed a request for review of the hearing decision, R. 5-15, which was denied by the Appeals Council on March 13, 2009. R. 1-3.

Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff commenced an action against the Commissioner by filing a complaint in this Court. Doc. No. 1. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment and brief in support on August 28, 2009. Doc. Nos. 6 and 7. The Commissioner likewise filed a motion for summary judgment and brief in support on September 2, 2009. Doc. Nos. 8 and 9. Said motions are the subject on this memorandum opinion.

III. Statement of the Case

In his decision, dated December 12, 2007, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2010.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 18, 2005, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(b) and 404.1571, et seq.).

3. The claimant has the following severe impairment: a herniated disc, status post microdiscectomy. (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c)).

4. 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. 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).

5. ... [T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work.

6. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a car salesman. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 C.F.R. 404.1565).

7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 18, 2005 through the date of [the] decision.

R. 21-24.

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to consider the entire evidentiary record, including the medical evidence of record and Plaintiff's testimony. Doc. No. 7 at 5. Further, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to reconcile conflicting medical evidence, Doc. No. 7 at 5,7, and failed to give appropriate weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians. Doc. 7 at 11.

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 (citation omitted). See Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005); Ventura, 55 F.3d at 901 (quoting Richardson); Stunkard v. Secretary of HHS, 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has referred to this standard as "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002), quoting Jesurum v. Secretary of the Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995). "A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the Secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence." Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993), quoting Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983). The substantial evidence standard allows a court to review a decision of an ALJ, yet avoid interference with the administrative responsibilities of the Commissioner. See Stewart v. Secretary of HEW, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir.1983).

In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the district court does not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusions for those of the fact finder. Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552. In making this determination, the district court considers and reviews only those findings upon which the ALJ based his or her decision, and cannot rectify errors, omissions or gaps in the medical record by supplying additional findings from its own independent analysis of portions of the record which were not mentioned or discussed by the ALJ. Fargnoli v. Massarini, 247 F.3d 34, 44 n.7 (3d Cir. 2001) ("The District Court, apparently recognizing the ALJ's failure to consider all of the relevant and probative evidence, attempted to rectify this error by relying on medical records found in its own independent analysis, and which were not mentioned by the ALJ. This runs counter to the teaching of SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80 (1943), that '[t]he grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based.' Id. at 87"; parallel and other citations omitted).

Five Step Determination Process

To qualify for DIB under Title II of the 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) (1982).*fn3

When resolving the issue of whether a claimant is disabled and whether the claimant is entitled to either DIB benefits, the Commissioner utilizes the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520 and 416.920 (1995). See Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 525. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ...


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