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Hornbrook v. Astrue

July 23, 2010

ROGER A. HORNBROOK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Susan Paradise Baxter United States Magistrate Judge

District Judge McLaughlin

Chief Magistrate Judge Baxter

MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. RECOMMENDATION

It is respectfully recommended that the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ( Document No. 11 ) be denied, and that the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ( Document No. 9 ) be denied to the extent that it requests an award of benefits but granted to the extent that it seeks a vacatur of the administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), and a remand for further administrative proceedings.

II. REPORT

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff Roger A. Hornbrook ("Hornbrook") commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying his 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]. Hornbrook protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on December 7, 2004, alleging disability as of May 30, 1992.*fn1 (Tr. 98, 116, 616). The applications were administratively denied on April 27, 2005. (Tr. 83, 609). Hornbrook responded on June 2, 2005, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. (Tr. 77). On August 3, 2007, a hearing was held in Erie, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge William Kenworthy (the "ALJ"). (Tr. 34). Hornbrook, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 39-59). Testimony was also taken from Karen Krull ("Krull"), an impartial vocational expert. (Tr. 59-62). In a decision dated August 22, 2007, the ALJ determined that Hornbrook was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 9-21). The Appeals Council denied Hornbrook's request for review on December 24, 2008, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. (Tr. 5). This action was commenced by Hornbrook on February 23, 2009. (Doc. No. 1). Hornbrook and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on September 17, 2009, and October 19, 2009, respectively. (Doc. Nos. 9 & 11). These motions are the subject of this report and recommendation.

B. Standard of Review

This Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Adorno v. Shalala , 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler , 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-1191 (3d Cir. 1986). Congress has clearly expressed its intention that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 565,108 S.Ct. 2541, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988)(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). As long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it cannot be set aside even if this Court "would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones v. Barnhart , 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

In order to establish a disability under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate 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." Stunkard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services , 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); Kangas v. Bowen , 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is considered to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity "only if his [or her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To support his or her ultimate findings, an administrative law judge must do more than simply state factual conclusions. He or she must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare , 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). The administrative law judge must consider all medical evidence contained in the record and provide adequate explanations for disregarding or rejecting evidence. Weir on Behalf of Weir v. Heckler , 734 F.2d 955, 961 (3d Cir. 1984); Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA"), acting pursuant to its legislatively delegated rulemaking authority, has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court recently summarized this process as follows:

If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further. At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity."

[20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment," defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c). Barnhart v. Thomas , 540 U.S. 20, 24-25, 124 S.Ct. 376, 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (2003)(footnotes omitted).

In an action in which review of an administrative determination is sought, the agency's decision cannot be affirmed on a ground other than that actually relied upon by the agency in making its decision. In Securities & Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947), the Supreme Court explained: When the case was first here, we emphasized a simple but fundamental rule of administrative law. That rule is to the effect that a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency. If those grounds are inadequate or improper, the court is powerless to affirm the administrative action by substituting what it considers to be a more adequate or proper basis. To do so would propel the court into the domain which Congress has set aside exclusively for the administrative agency.

Chenery Corp. , 332 U.S. at 196. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recognized the applicability of this rule in the Social Security disability context. Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 44, n. 7 (3d Cir. 2001). Thus, the Court's review is limited to the four corners of the ALJ's decision.

C. The ALJ's Decision

Although Hornbrook had engaged in substantial gainful activity subsequent to his alleged onset date, the ALJ determined that such work activity had preceded Hornbrook's protective filing date. (Tr. 14). Hornbrook was found to be suffering from the residual effects of a traumatic injury to his right hip, status post total hip arthroplasty, degenerative disc disease, and a bipolar disorder. (Tr. 15). Although these impairments were deemed to be "severe" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and 416.920(a)(4)(ii), the ALJ concluded that they did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listing of Impairments" or, with respect to a single impairment, a "Listed Impairment" or "Listing"). (Tr. 15-17).

In accordance with 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1545 and 416.945, the ALJ assessed Hornbrook's residual ...


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