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Catherine C. Gurden v. Michael J. Astrue

December 2, 2010

CATHERINE C. GURDEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIALSECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David Stewart Cercone United States District Judge

Electronic Filing

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Catherine C. Gurden ("Gurden"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her 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]. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the record has been developed at the administrative level. For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner (Document No. 11) will be denied, and the motion for summary judgment filed by Gurden (Document No. 7) will be denied to the extent that it requests an immediate award of benefits but granted to the extent that it seeks a vacation of the Commissioner‟s decision, and a remand for further administrative proceedings. The decision of the Commissioner will be vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Gurden protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on March 16, 2007, alleging disability as of November 23, 2003. R. 105, 108, 118. The applications were administratively denied on June 29, 2007. R. 77, 82. Gurden responded on August 13, 2007, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 89. On November 19, 2008, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge James Bukes (the "ALJ"). R. 51. Gurden, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 54-68. Dr. Fred Monaco, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 68-72. In a decision dated May 21, 2009, the ALJ determined that Gurden was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 9-31. The Appeals Council denied Gurden‟s request for review on August 18, 2009, thereby making the ALJ‟s decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 1. Gurden commenced this action on September 29, 2009, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner‟s decision. Doc. Nos. 1 & 3. Gurden and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on January 29, 2010, and March 26, 2010, respectively. Doc. Nos. 7 &

11. The motions are now before the Court.

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

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.

IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

In his decision, the ALJ determined that Gurden had not engaged in substantial gainful activity subsequent to her alleged onset date. R. 14. Gurden was found to be suffering from fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, anterolisthesis of the lumbar spine, low back pain, a torn meniscus of the left knee, left knee pain, an anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, a major depressive disorder, diabetes mellitus and lupus. R. 14-15. Although Gurden‟s diabetes mellitus and lupus were deemed to be "non-severe," her remaining impairments were found to be "severe" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and 416.920(a)(4)(ii). R. 14-15. The ALJ concluded that Gurden‟s impairments 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"). R. 15-17.

In accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945, the ALJ assessed Gurden‟s residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light exertional work activity as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except the claimant requires a sit and stand option at her discretion; is limited to occasionally engage in postural activities such as climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; and must avoid temperature extremes and high humidity. In addition, the claimant is limited to simple routine tasks with simple instructions and must avoid changes in the work setting due to her non-exertional impairments.

R. 17. Gurden had past work experience as an assistant manager at a hot dog shop and as a shift supervisor at two fast-food restaurants.*fn1 R. 124. Dr. Monaco described the assistant manager job as a "skilled"*fn2 position and the shift supervisor jobs as "semi-skilled"*fn3 positions. R. 69. All three of these positions were classified at the "heavy"*fn4 level of exertion. R. 69. Since Gurden was found to be limited to "light"*fn5 work, it was determined that she could not return to her past relevant work. R. 30.

Gurden was born on December 5, 1955, making her forty-seven years old on her alleged onset date and fifty-three years old on the date of the ALJ‟s decision. R. 30, 54, 105, 108. Under the Commissioner‟s regulations, she was classified as a "younger person" prior to her fiftieth birthday and as a "person closely approaching advanced age" subsequent to her fiftieth birthday. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c)-(d), 416.963(c)-(d). She had the equivalent of a high school education and an ability to communicate in English. R. 30, 54, 122; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564(b)(4)-(5), 416.964(b)(4)-(5). Given the applicable residual functional capacity and vocational assessments, the ALJ concluded that Gurden could work as a document preparer, bench ...


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