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Nicholson v. Astrue

June 15, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Donna Kay Nicholson ("Plaintiff"), brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which denied her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(f).

II. Background

A. Facts

Plaintiff was born on November 20, 1964, and was forty-three (43) years old on the date of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). T. 17, 22. Plaintiff graduated from high school and completed one year of technical school. T. 24, 106. Plaintiff‟s past work experience includes employment as a nurse‟s aide from 1992-1993 and as a telemarketer for approximately ten months from 1997-1998. Plaintiff has not worked since September 1998. T. 24, 25, 100, 331. Plaintiff testified at her administrative hearing that she stopped working because of blood clots in her legs. T. 25. However, according to Plaintiff‟s disability report, she stopped working due to a car accident and pregnancy. T. 100. Plaintiff made no effort to look for other employment after she ceased working. T. 25. Plaintiff‟s alleged onset of her disability is March 1, 2001 due to arthritis in her right hand, bad veins in her legs, depression, mitral valve disease, and neurological problems. T. 99-107.

The record reflects that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since September 1, 1998. T. 100.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on March 10, 2006, in which she alleged total disability since March 1, 2001. T. 8. Her claim was initially denied on November 21, 2006. T. 8. Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on January 16, 2007. T. 8. An administrative hearing was held on March 11, 2008, before ALJ Norma Cannon at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. T. 20-37. Eugene A. Czuczman, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. T. 37-44.

The ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff on May 6, 2008, in which she found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of light work, with restrictions*fn1 and, therefore, was not disabled as defined in the Act since March 10, 2006, the date of Plaintiff‟s application. T. 17.

The ALJ‟s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on June 26, 2009, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff‟s request for review. T. 1-4.

Plaintiff filed her complaint in this Court on August 24, 2009, in which she seeks judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in failing to accord proper weight to the opinions of Margaret McKinley, Ph.D., who conducted a consultative psychological examination of Plaintiff in 2006, and P. Iyengar, M.D., Plaintiff‟s treating psychiatrist. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ failed to accurately portray Plaintiff‟s physical and mental impairments in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert. The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed, as it is supported by substantial evidence. The Court agrees with the Commissioner and will therefore grant the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner and deny the motion for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff.

III. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner‟s final decision.

42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner‟s finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). "It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance." Stunkard v. Sec. of Health & Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

When resolving the issue of whether an adult claimant is or is not disabled, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 (1995). This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to his or her past relevant work, and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work. See 42 U.S.C. § 404.1520; Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 118-19 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999)).

In order to qualify for disability benefits under the Act, an individual must demonstrate that there "exists a 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) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1) (1982)). This may be done in two ways:

(1) by introducing medical evidence that the claimant is disabled per se because he or she suffers from one or more of a number of serious impairments delineated in 20 C.F.R. Regulations No. 4, Subpt. P, Appendix 1 (1986). See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460 (1983); Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; or,

(2) in the event that claimant suffers from a less severe impairment, by demonstrating that he or she is nevertheless unable to engage in "any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . ." ...

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