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Lamont Tyrone Cooper v. Michael J. Astrue

January 26, 2011

LAMONT TYRONE COOPER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Lamont Tyrone Cooper filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income benefits and Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Cooper seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision on grounds that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") finding that Cooper is not disabled was not based on substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to consider timely-submitted medical evidence of Cooper's disability. In the alternative, Cooper seeks remand to a different ALJ. The Commissioner argues that the denial was based on substantial evidence and that the evidence the ALJ did not consider was submitted after the decision was issued, duplicated other evidence, and, regardless, would not have altered the outcome.

Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") finding the ALJ's decision was not based on substantial evidence and recommending that this Court remand the Commissioner's final decision for consideration of all relevant evidence and augmentation of the administrative record. *fn1 No objections were filed. Upon this Court's thorough review of the record and the Parties' submissions, and its full consideration of the legal issues discussed in the R&R, *fn2 it will approve and adopt the Report and Recommendation and remand for further consideration consistent with this opinion and the R&R.

I. F ACTUAL & P ROCEDURAL B ACKGROUND

In May 2007, Cooper applied to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for both Supplemental Security Income benefits and Disability Insurance Benefits. Cooper claimed several disabling impairments: asthma, hypertension, bipolar disorder with auditory and visual hallucinations, and residual limitations from a December 2007 stroke and a December 2008 arm fracture. Cooper alleged an onset date of December 12, 2007. *fn3

After his application was denied in January 2008, Cooper timely sought a hearing before an ALJ. Cooper was initially unrepresented, and the ALJ continued the hearing twice-once to give Cooper time to retain counsel and again apparently at the request of Cooper's attorney. *fn4

The hearing was ultimately held on March 9, 2009.

During the March 9 hearing, Cooper's attorney noted that he had been unable to obtain Cooper's medical records from his most recent mental health care provider, COMHAR, in part because he could not reach Cooper-who, he claimed, was effectively homeless-to obtain his written consent to release them. *fn5 Cooper's attorney, noting that he could execute the consent forms that day because Cooper was present at the hearing, asked to "have a chance to get those records." *fn6 Despite this explanation, the ALJ declined to keep the record open, noting the prior continuances and declaring that he could see no reason why future efforts to obtain the records would be more successful than past efforts. *fn7 The ALJ did commit, however, that he would consider any new evidence submitted "before a decision goes out." *fn8

On March 17, 2009, eight days after the hearing, Cooper's attorney faxed the COMHAR psychiatric treatment records to the ALJ. *fn9 Both the ALJ's Decision and Notice of Decision are dated March 19, 2009, *fn10 but the envelope containing the decision mailed to Cooper's attorney was postmarked March 17 and stamped "received" by his law office on March 18. *fn11 In that Decision, the ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process *fn12 and found that some of Cooper's asserted impairments (stroke & arm fracture) were not severe, and that of the impairments the ALJ found were severe (asthma, hypertension and bipolar disorder) none met or equaled impairments enumerated by 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I ("Listed Impairments") that would permit a finding of per se disability. *fn13 After finding Cooper could not return to his prior line of work and determining his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ credited the testimony of a vocational expert that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Cooper could perform despite his impairments. *fn14 Following the ALJ's decision, Cooper timely sought review by the SSA Appeals Council, which declined to review the decision. *fn15 The COMHAR records were identified as Exhibits 13F, 14F, and 15F in the Record on appeal. *fn16 Cooper then filed the pending complaint in this Court.

II. S TANDARD OF R REVIEW

A court reviewing a Social Security case must base its decision on the record of the administrative proceedings and the pleadings of the parties. *fn17 The court's review of legal issues is plenary, but its factual review is limited. *fn18 The court must determine whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in making its decision. *fn19 For these purposes, "substantial evidence" means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." *fn20 It is more than a mere scintilla, but requires less than a preponderance of the evidence. *fn21 If the ALJ's factual findings were determined according to the correct legal standards and are supported by substantial evidence, the court is bound by them, "even if [it] would have decided the factual inquiry differently." *fn22

A district court must review de novo those portions of a magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation to which a party has objected. *fn23 A court may in its discretion "accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." *fn24

III. D ISCUSSION

The dispute here centers on whether Cooper submitted the post-hearing COMHAR psychiatric treatment records before the ALJ issued his decision, obligating him to consider that evidence and explain why it was or was not credited. The COMHAR records take on particular importance because of the ALJ's emphasis on the limited objective medical evidence of Cooper's mental illness and resulting limitations. Though Cooper's attorney asked for the opportunity to submit those specific records, the ALJ declined to hold the record open. The factual ambiguities now presented to this Court-and which lead this Court ...


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