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Thompson v. Astrue

April 27, 2010


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


Plaintiff, Cordell T. Thompson, seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner" or "Defendant"), denying his application for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. (Docket No. 8.) For the reasons described below, the Court will affirm the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") and deny Thompson's request for benefits or a new hearing.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Thompson applied for social security benefits on May 25, 2005. (R.87.) Thompson was born in September 1960 (R. 87, 103, 108), and is defined as a "younger person" by the relevant social security regulations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563 (2009). Previously, Thompson worked as a laborer, completed a five-year apprenticeship program with the electrical union, and worked as a union electrician for approximately twelve years. (R. 44-45, 245-46, & 292.) Thompson reported graduating from high school, attending Pennsylvania Institute of Technology for a year and a half, and completing two years of college, including classes taken in 2005-2006, during his alleged period of disability.*fn1 (R. 44.) Thompson is able to communicate in English. (R. 22.)

According to Thompson, he became disabled on October 1, 2002, and was unable to work due to dyslexia, irritable bowel syndrome ("IBS"), abdominal pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (R. 89, 103.) On September 2, 2005, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Thompson's application. (R. 89-93.) Thompson filed a new claim on September 8, 2005, again alleging that he became disabled on October 1, 2002. (R. 106-107.) In his second application, Thompson averred that he was unable to work due to dyslexia and IBS, but stated that he did "not have a mental condition that would limit his ability to work." (R. 93, 155-56.) On January 27, 2006, the SSA denied Thompson's second application. (R.93-96.) Thompson timely requested an administrative hearing (R. 97), which was held on April 27, 2007 (R. 15, 43).

At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Thompson, who testified that he suffered from "[g]eneralized anxiety and post traumatic stress." (R. 46.) In addition, a medical expert ("ME") who had reviewed Thompson's medical file, testified that Thompson was "moderately impaired" but could work, so long as the work was predictable and would not involve "a lot of independent judgments." (R. 62.) The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert ("VE"). (R. 15, 43.)

After the hearing, Thompson submitted additional evidence, predominantly consisting of case Progress Notes authored by his Rehabilitation Counselor from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation ("OVR"). (R. 331-69.) On May 25, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision denying Thompson's benefits claim. (R. 15-23.)

The ALJ found that Thompson "meets the insured status requirements" of the Act, and "has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2002, the alleged onset date."

(R. 17.) The ALJ then determined that Thompson suffers from two severe impairments, anxiety disorder and personality disorder, that "cause significant limitation in [his] ability to perform basic work activities." (R. 17.) The ALJ, however, determined that Thompson's complaints of IBS, right leg problems, back pain, and obesity, "would have no more than a minimal effect" on his ability to work. (R. 17.)

Respecting Thompson's ability to work, the ALJ found that the ME had "testified that the record supports findings that these impairments cause mild restriction in activities of daily living," and "moderate" difficulties with social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and that "there have been no episodes of decompensation of extended duration." (R. 18.) In addition, the ALJ found that "[m]ost treatment notes are indicative of mild to moderate functional restrictions." (R. 21.) The ALJ then determined that Thompson "has the residual functional capacity to perform work activities" because Thompson's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms are not entirely credible," and "no findings . . . support the . . . totally disabling allegations." (R. 20, 21.) The ALJ, however, also found that "[d]ue to emotional impairments, [Thompson] requires a predictable type of job utilizing his verbal [skills] and intelligence in a stable environment not requiring independent judgment." (R. 18.) The ALJ summarized the VE's testimony as providing that an individual with such limitations could work in an unskilled occupation, which "exist[] in significant numbers in the national economy." (R. 22.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that a "finding of 'not disabled' is therefore appropriate" for Thompson. (R. 23.)

Thompson timely appealed from the ALJ's decision by filing the pending Request for Review.

II. The Parties' Contentions

A. Thompson's Objections

Thompson challenges the ALJ's decision on the grounds that (1) the ALJ failed to proffer evidence Thompson submitted after the hearing to the ME, (2) the ALJ improperly substituted his judgment for that of the ME, and (3) the ALJ improperly relied upon an incomplete hypothetical question posed to the VE. Turning first to the ALJ's failure to proffer post-hearing evidence to the ME, Thompson contends that such behavior "violated" the Commissioner's own Hearings, Appeals and Litigation Law Manual ("HALLEX"), available at (last visited Apr. 9, 2010). (Pl.'s Br. 8.) According to Thompson, the ALJ's error requires reversal because "the new evidence highlights the extent to which Mr. Thompson's personality disorder has impacted upon his interaction with professionals, including those at the [OVR] who seek to assist him," and because "it is impossible to know whether [the ME's] testimony would have remained the same had she been given an opportunity to review" the additional evidence. (Pl.'s Br. 8-9.)

Next, Thompson avers that the transcript from the hearing demonstrates that the ALJ "did not accept or believe [the ME]'s testimony regarding Mr. Thompson's various phobias, and that [the ALJ] expressly directed [the ME] not to testify about the impact of this medically determinable impairment which, as [the ME] stated, has support in the record." (Pl.'s Br. 11.) Thompson concludes that the transcript shows that the ALJ substituted his uninformed lay opinion for that of the ME, which is prohibited by Third Circuit law, and that the ALJ erred in this case by not allowing the ME to comment on how the phobias impacted Thompson's ability to work. (Pl.'s Br. 12-13.) In addition, Thompson contends that the ALJ's refusal to allow the ME to consider "limitations arising from Mr. Thompson's various phobias" constitutes "reversible error." (Pl.'s Br. 14.)

Thompson then contends that the ALJ posed an incomplete hypothetical question to the VE, by failing to "proffer evidence to [the ME] which may have changed her opinion," and by basing the hypothetical on the ME's stated opinion. (Pl.'s Br. 15.) Thompson concludes by averring that the ALJ's errors are "particularly egregious given the level of this denial," that being a denial at step five, when the Commissioner purportedly bears the burden of showing that Thompson can perform jobs available in the regional and national economy. (Pl.'s Br. 15.)

B. The Commissioner's Response

The Commissioner avers that Thompson's arguments should be rejected, and that the ALJ's decisions should be affirmed. Respecting the ALJ's decision to not proffer post-hearing evidence to the ME, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ was entitled to make a decision without doing so, and that case law has emphasized that ALJs need not contact physicians for ...

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