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Schaffer v. Astrue

April 9, 2010

TINA SCHAFFER, 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 Tina Schaffer ("Schaffer") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f]. 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. 8 & 10.

After careful consideration of the Commissioner's decision, the memoranda of the parties, and the entire evidentiary record, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision must be vacated, and that the case must be remanded for further proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of § 405(g). Therefore, the Court will deny the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, deny Schaffer's motion for summary judgment insofar as it seeks an award of benefits, and grant Schaffer's motion for summary judgment insofar as it seeks a vacation of the Commissioner's decision, and a remand for further administrative proceedings.

II. Procedural History

Schaffer protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on March 1, 2007, alleging disability as of June 30, 2005. R. 83, 87, 105. The applications were denied by the state agency on August 13, 2007. R. 62, 66. Schaffer responded on September 20, 2007, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 73. On February 18, 2009, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge Michael F. Colligan (the "ALJ"). R. 21. Schaffer, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 24-40. Samuel Edelman ("Edelman"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 40-43.

In a decision dated April 7, 2009, the ALJ determined that Schaffer was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 9-20. The Appeals Council denied Schaffer's request for review on August 21, 2009, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 1. Schaffer commenced this action on September 16, 2009, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Doc. No. 1. Schaffer and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on January 11, 2010, and January 15, 2010, respectively. Doc. Nos. 8 & 10. These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. Statement of the Case

In his decision, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2008.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2005, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).

3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: schwanoma of the lumbar spine, back pain, history of neurogenic bladder, mood disorder and panic disorder (20 CFR 404.1521 et seq. and 416.921 et seq.).

4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.925 and 416.926).

5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except claimant cannot engage in repetitive bending, cannot use foot/pedal controls with the left foot, is limited to simple routine repetitive tasks performed in a low stress environment, must have minimal contact with the public, and must have reasonable access to bathroom facilities.

6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).

7. The claimant was born on March 19, 1979 and was 26 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).

8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).

9. Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant's past relevant work is unskilled (20 CFR 404.1568 and 416.968).

10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569a, 416.969, and 416.969a).

11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 30, 2005 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

R. 14-20. Schaffer's arguments all relate, in one form or another, to the ALJ's alleged failure to properly consider her need to persistently access restroom facilities. Doc. No. 9, pp. 3-12.

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 e 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). Similarly, to qualify for SSI, the claimant must show "he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1383c(a)(3)(A).

When resolving the issue of whether a claimant is disabled and whether the claimant is entitled to either DIB or SSI benefits, the Commissioner utilizes the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 (1995). See Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 525. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit summarized this five step process in Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422 (3d Cir.1999):

In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C .F.R. § 404.1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial activity, the disability claim will be denied. . . . In step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails to show that her impairments are "severe", she is ineligible for disability benefits.

In step three, the Commissioner compares the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(d). If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five. Step four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. ...


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