The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sean J. McLaughlin United States District Judge
Timothy E. Giblin ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying his application for Child's Insurance Benefits ("CIB") as the alleged surviving son of deceased wage earner William J. Stroup ("Stroup") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401- 433 ("Act"). This matter comes before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 9, 11). The record has been developed at the administrative level. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED; Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED; and, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge, Malvin B. Eisenberg ("ALJ"), is REVERSED and the case remanded to the Commissioner with directions to award benefits to Plaintiff.
Stroup filed for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act on July 25, 2000 (AR 58-60).*fn1 Stroup was awarded DIB following an administrative hearing on June 4, 2003 (AR 25-32). Plaintiff filed for CIB with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") January 5, 2005, claiming eligibility due to his alleged father - Stroup's - entitlement to DIB at the time of his death on December 4, 2004 (AR 74-76). Plaintiff was initially denied CIB by the SSA on July 25, 2005, because of insufficient proof of paternity (AR 12). A hearing before the ALJ to review the initial denial was conducted by video conference on April 16, 2007, and Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ represented by counsel (AR 366-405). Three witnesses for Plaintiff - Nancy Carol Giblin ("Giblin"), Jim L. Mong ("Mong"), and Thomas Lee Ul ("Ul") -were present to testify (AR 366-405). The ALJ issued his decision denying CIB to Plaintiff on May 4, 2007 (AR 12-18). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which request was denied on June 26, 2009, thereby making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner (AR 5-7).
Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this Court on August 21, 2009. Defendant filed his Answer on November 3, 2009. Cross-motions for Summary Judgment followed.
When reviewing a decision denying benefits under Title II, the district court's role is limited to determining whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3rd Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3rd Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, if the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390. A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision nor re-weigh evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F. Supp. 549, 552 (E.D.Pa. 1998); see also Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 90-91 (3rd Cir. 1986) ("even where this court acting de novo might have reached a different conclusion . . . so long as the agency's factfinding is supported by substantial evidence, reviewing courts lack power to reverse either those findings or the reasonable regulatory interpretations that an agency manifests in the course of making such findings."). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706.
Plaintiff was born January 19, 1988 (AR 371). At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was 19 years old and a freshman at Westminster College (AR 371-372). Stroup, the Plaintiff's alleged father, was born July 19, 1946 (AR 58). Stroup applied for DIB, and claimed a disabling condition as of November 1, 1999 (AR 58). Stroup was awarded DIB on June 4, 2003, for heart-related ailments and post traumatic stress disorder (AR 25-32). Stroup served in the United States military from January 19, 1965 until January 17, 1969 (AR 58). Stroup died December 4, 2004 (AR 74-76).
At the administrative hearing held April 16, 2007, Plaintiff appeared to testify with his mother, Giblin, and two of Stroup's friends, Mong and Ul (AR 366). During his testimony, Plaintiff recalled first meeting Stroup at around age 10 when Stroup's mother took Plaintiff to visit Stroup, and informed Plaintiff that Stroup was his father (AR 372-374). Plaintiff testified that at that point Stroup acknowledged being Plaintiff's father (AR 374). Plaintiff stated that his relationship with Stroup was typically limited to visits during holidays and birthdays, though Stroup often went to school events, as well (AR 374-375). Plaintiff testified that he and Stroup generally spent time together at least once a month (AR 377). Plaintiff claimed that he always referred to Stroup as "dad" (AR 376). Plaintiff referred to Stroup's mother as "Grandma Dodd" (AR 372). Plaintiff testified that he was aware that the portion of his birth certificate that normally indicated the identity of one's father was left blank (AR 379). Plaintiff was aware of no other person who had ever claimed to be his father (AR 379).
Giblin testified following Plaintiff (AR 381). Giblin testified that she had never been married and had only one child - Plaintiff (AR 382). Giblin testified that she had lived with Stroup twice: once, for several weeks, and a second time, for almost a year ending when Plaintiff was born (AR 384). Giblin claimed to have had sexual relations with no one other than Stroup during the relevant time period and testified that only Stroup could have been Plaintiff's father (AR 384). Giblin also explained that Stroup's name was not included on Plaintiff's birth certificate only because he did not wish to take on the responsibility of being a father, and because Giblin was advised by an attorney that Stroup could go after her for money and/or custody down the road (AR 385). Giblin testified that on the day of Plaintiff's birth, Stroup and his mother came to visit her in the hospital, and that Stroup continued to visit and call her at the hospital throughout her ten day stay (AR 385).
Giblin stated that Stroup first met Plaintiff when he was only 5 years old, and attended a school function with Plaintiff when he was in first grade (AR 386). However, she believed that Plaintiff did not come to the realization that Stroup was his father until some time later when Plaintiff specifically asked her about Stroup (AR 386). Giblin testified that Plaintiff was invited to functions on Stroup's side of the family, Plaintiff appeared with other family members in numerous photographs, and Stroup actively attended Plaintiff's school functions and athletic events (AR 386-387; 392).
Giblin stated that Stroup was initially uncomfortable with Plaintiff referring to him as "dad" when Plaintiff was younger because he did not want the responsibility of a family (AR 387). Giblin claimed that she never wanted to live with Stroup, and never wanted to pursue custody and support in court because she felt there was no reason to do so (AR 387-388). Giblin stated that although Stroup worked, he drank significantly, managed his money very poorly, and relied on her to pay his bills when they lived together (AR 388). Giblin testified that Stroup had personal difficulties, and was not able to cope well with many everyday events - particularly interruptions with his daily routine (AR 386-387). Giblin stated that Stroup's siblings were responsible for putting his death notice in the newspaper (AR 390).
Stroup's long-time friend, Mong, also offered testimony at the hearing (AR 395). Mong stated that he and Stroup had been friends from 1960 until the day Stroup passed away in 2004 (AR 395-396). The two were particularly close over the last ten years - Stroup visiting Mong's home to play pool four or five days a week (AR 396). Mong testified that Stroup frequently asked him questions or asked for advice about Plaintiff, because Mong had two older sons (AR 396). Mong first became aware that Stroup had a son about fifteen years prior, when Stroup asked him what he would buy his sons, because Stroup was looking for a present for his son, "Tim" (AR 397). Mong had already known Plaintiff, because he knew Stroup's mother and Giblin, and had seen Plaintiff since he was a baby (AR 398). Mong recounted several conversations in which Stroup directly and indirectly referred to Plaintiff as his son (AR 398). He also recounted a particular occasion when Stroup was building Plaintiff a playhouse at Stroup's home (AR 398).
Ul testified that he had been friends with Stroup since high school (AR 400). Ul testified that they were "best of friends," and that he had been in the hospital with Stroup the day before he died (AR 400). Over the years, Ul and Stroup had lived and worked together, and more recently would see each other at least once a month (AR 401). Ul recounted that after Giblin became pregnant, Stroup claimed that the child was his (AR 401). He also remembered that when he went to visit Giblin in the hospital after Plaintiff's birth, Stroup said, ...