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Knox v. Astrue

October 13, 2010

ALVIN KNOX, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lisa Pupo Lenihan United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

I. Introduction

This matter comes before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, which have been filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Doc. Nos. 10 & 14. The Court has jurisdiction in this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates the standards applicable under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment filed by the Plaintiff (Document No. 10) will be denied, the motion for summary judgment filed by the Defendant (Document No. 14) will be granted, and the administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") will be affirmed.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff Alvin Knox, Jr. ("Knox"), protectively applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f] on March 27, 2007, alleging disability as of January 25, 2006. R. at 65, 87. The application was administratively denied on August 14, 2007. R. at 55. Knox responded on September 19, 2007, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. at 60-62. On February 23, 2009, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge William E. Kenworthy (the "ALJ"). R. at 16. Knox, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. at 19-24, 29-30. Samuel Edelman ("Edelman"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. at 25-28. In a decision dated March 11, 2009, the ALJ determined that Knox was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. at 5-15. The Appeals Council denied Knox's request for review on July 28, 2009, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner this case. R. at 1. Knox commenced this action on October 2, 2009, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Doc. Nos. 1 & 3. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), the parties consented to having this case adjudicated by a United States Magistrate Judge. Doc. Nos. 7 & 9. Knox and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on May 14, 2010, and July 14, 2010, respectively. Doc. Nos. 10 & 14. These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. Standard of Review

This Court's review is plenary with respect to all questions of law. Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). With respect to factual issues, judicial 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 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. ...


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