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Hitchcock v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

December 21, 2009

JERRY K. HITCHCOCK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This action was filed by Jerry Hitchcock ("Plaintiff") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying the Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Presently before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 10). The parties have filed briefs in support of their respective motions (Docket Nos. 9 and 11). Upon analysis and consideration of each submission, and as set forth herein, Plaintiff's motion will be granted in part and denied in part, the Commissioner's motion will be denied and the decision of the Administrative Law Judge will be vacated and remanded.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on June 13, 2006, alleging disability due to his loss of hearing and sight, hip, shoulder and neck pain, leg burns and shortness of breath, all beginning on October 1, 2000. (Docket No. 6 at 117-121, 128, hereinafter "R. at __"). Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on October 5, 2006, and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on September 10, 2008. (R. at 10-56, 70-73). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel. (R. at 10-56). Additionally, a Vocational Expert ("VE") was present and gave testimony. (Id.) On October 7, 2008, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff had the ability to perform light work and that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, thereby concluding that Plaintiff was "not disabled" under the Act. (R. at 62-69). On March 13, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at 1-4). Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action on May 6, 2009. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on August 19, 2009 (Docket No. 8), and the Commissioner filed a motion for summary judgment on September 9, 2009 (Docket No. 10).

II. STANDARD 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 DIB), and judicial review thereof, are virtually identical to the 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).

When reviewing a decision denying DIB, the district court's role is limited to determining whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ's findings of fact. Burns, 312 F.3d at 118. Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)(quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, if the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390. A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision nor re-weigh evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706.

To be eligible for Social Security benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

The ALJ must utilize a five-step sequential analysis when evaluating the disability status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404 subpt. P., appx. 1; (4) whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4); see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003).

If the claimant is determined to be unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner (Step 5) to prove that, given plaintiffs'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. Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986).

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on April 11, 1951 (R. at 117). Plaintiff was fifty-four (54) years old as of March 31, 2006, the date Plaintiff was last insured for DIB under Title II. (R. at 68). Plaintiff completed twelfth grade and has training as an associate in electrical technology. (R. at 132). Plaintiff was employed as a welder and welder group leader for 31 years, until October of 2000.

(R. at 129). Plaintiff's work as a welder ended when the plant closed in 2000. (R. at 49). He also had an unsuccessful work attempt as a laborer in 2005. (R. at 141).

Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Joel Nystrom on February 16, 1999 with complaints of a "funny sensation" in his upper and lower distal extremities. (R. at 160). Plaintiff was diagnosed with polyneuritis*fn3 as well as carpal tunnel syndrome and complained that his symptoms had worsened over time. (Id.). Plaintiff denied having depression although he did have symptoms of poor concentration, fatigue and weakness. (Id.). Dr. Nystrom did not find any neurological problems, however, Plaintiff's reflexes were weak. (Id.). Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Nystrom on November 14, 2000 for a check up. (R. at 159). Plaintiff stated that his insurance was going to run out in two weeks and he wanted to get some tests done. (Id.). He complained of being short of breath on exertion and that he had a mild to moderate cough, but also indicated that he smokes. (Id.). Dr. Nystrom noted that Plaintiff had impaired hearing and could not discern much of what was said to him. (Id.). Dr. Nystrom diagnosed Plaintiff as having a right inguinal hernia and dyspnea on exertion with a long history of smoking, probably indicating COPD.*fn4 (Id.). Report of Plaintiff's pulmonary function test revealed his expiratory flow rates were within normal limits, as well as his lung volume and diffusing capacity. (R. at 178). On November 29, 2000, Dr. Nystrom reported that Plaintiff had his hernia repaired. (R. at 158). Chest x-rays showed that Plaintiff had a normal sized heart and pulmonary function tests showed mild obstructive changes with some reversibility after bronchodilator. (Id.).

Plaintiff was seen by Nurse Practitioner Colleen Goodwin on February 12, 2001. (R. at 157). Plaintiff's chief complaint was decreased attention and difficulty studying for a Vo-Tech electrical class that he had been taking. (Id.). Plaintiff indicated that he was down to one pack of cigarettes a day from two per day in November. (Id.). Nurse Practitioner Goodwin stated that Plaintiff's blood work was within normal limits except for cholesterol and liver enzymes. (Id.). Plaintiff's balance, coordination and gait were all found to be within normal limits. (Id.). Nurse Practitioner Goodwin recommended that Plaintiff approach a teacher to consider alternative tutoring strategies and perhaps help though a literacy center. (Id.).

The record indicates that Plaintiff was not seen by any medical professional between February 2001 and August 2006 due to having no insurance. (R. at 148, 157, 200, 229). On August 10, 2006, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. John Schibli, an osteopath, with complaints of diabetes, neck pain and shoulder pain. (R. at 229). Plaintiff stated that he had borderline diabetes but did not regularly use a glucometer nor follow up with his primary care physician concerning his diabetes for over three years. (Id.). Plaintiff also complained of neck pain that would be so severe that it would cause him to fall asleep. (Id.). He stated that he had pain and numbness in his right arm and along his right side although he could walk about 100 yards before he needed to rest. (Id.). Plaintiff was not on any medications for his pain at the time. (Id.). In addition, Plaintiff stated he had hearing loss and used to have hearing aids in the past but he lost them. (R. at 230). Dr. Schibli indicated that Plaintiff had moderate hearing loss at low frequency and moderate to severe hearing ...


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