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Lindsey v. Astrue

September 14, 2010


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


I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Michael Paul Lindsey ("Plaintiff"), brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which denied his applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403; 1381-1383(f).

II. Background

A. Facts

Plaintiff was born on June 4, 1978. (R. 33)*fn1 . He graduated from high school and earned a certificate in diesel mechanics. (Id.). Plaintiff's past relevant work experience consists of recapping tires for Kraft Tire, Inc., for two (2) years and delivering newspapers for the Uniontown Herald Standard for approximately four (4) years. (R. 34). Plaintiff also worked as a commercial roofer for approximately a year-and-a-half, a metal fabricating laborer at a steel fabricating facility, and briefly as a car dealership maintenance worker. (R. 34, 65-66). The vocational expert testified that all these jobs are classified as medium or higher exertional work.

Plaintiff's alleged onset of his disability is August 28, 2006, due to tinnitus, possible meningitis, difficulty sleeping, numbness from his shoulders to his hands, and pain in his neck, back, fingers, and arms. (R. 111-120). The record reflects that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since his alleged onset date of disability. (R. 17).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff initially filed an application for SSI on December 7, 2006, and an application for DIB on December 22, 2006. (R. 109-14). Plaintiff claimed disability on both applications as of August 28, 2006. (Id.). Both claims were denied at the initial level of administrative review and, thereafter, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. An administrative hearing was held on June 23, 2008, before Administrative Law Judge J.E. Sullivan ("ALJ"). (R. 27-74). Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. (R. 29-63). Eugene Czuczman, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also testified at the hearing. (R. 63-72).

On February 9, 2009, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff in which she found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work with restrictions,*fn2 and therefore was not disabled as defined in the Act from August 28, 2006, through the date of her decision. (R. 15-26).

The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on October 5, 2009, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4).

On November 13, 2009, Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this Court in which he seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in failing to consider and accord controlling weight to the opinion of Dr. Shahoud and improperly disregarded competent medical evidence "based on her independent review of the record." (Document No. 17). The Commissioner contends that Dr. Shahoud's opinion should not be considered by this Court because it was not received by the ALJ until after the administrative record had closed, and, alternatively, Plaintiff has failed to meet her burden of proving that Dr. Shahoud's opinion is "new evidence" which would necessitate a sentence six remand.*fn3 (Document No. 15). Furthermore, the Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed because it is supported by substantial evidence. (Id.). For the reasons that follow, 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),1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 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 (1971); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Stunkard v. Sec'y 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) (quoting Plummer v. Apfel, 186, F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999)).

To qualify for disability benefits under 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). 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. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (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 . . . ." Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461 (citing 42 U.S.C. ' 423 (d)(2)(A)).

In order to prove disability under the second method, a claimant must first demonstrate the existence of a medically determinable disability that precludes plaintiff from returning to his or her former job. Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777. Once it is shown that claimant is unable to resume his or her previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that, given claimant=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. Stunkard, 842 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979).

Where a claimant has multiple impairments which may not individually reach the level of severity necessary to qualify as an impairment delineated in 20 C.F. R. Regulations No. 4, Suppt. P, Appendix 1, the Commissioner nevertheless must consider all of the impairments in combination to determine whether, collectively, they meet or equal the severity of one of these listed impairments. Bailey v. Sullivan, 885 F.2d 52 (3d Cir. 1989) (Ain determining an individual=s eligibility for benefits, the Secretary shall consider the combined effect of all of the individual=s impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of such severity.@)

In this case, the ALJ properly followed the five-step sequential evaluation process and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act at the fifth step. (R. 24-25). In making this determination, the ALJ concluded at the first step that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 28, ...

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