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Dolores E. Jennings, Jr v. Michael J. Astrue

January 31, 2011

DOLORES E. JENNINGS, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Dolores Jennings filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) & §1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Jennings seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision on grounds that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") finding she is not disabled was not based on substantial evidence. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's determination was supported by substantial evidence and should be upheld.

United States Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), *fn1 finding the ALJ's decision was not based on substantial evidence, and recommending that this Court remand the final decision of the Commissioner for full and proper consideration of all the evidence, including the opinions and records of Plaintiff's treating physician. Plaintiff timely objected to the Magistrate's recommendation that the case be remanded, rather then reversed. Upon this Court's careful, independent consideration of the administrative record, the parties' submissions, and the applicable law, the Court will approve and adopt the R&R's finding that the ALJ's disability determination was not supported by substantial evidence. But because the record is fully developed and substantially clear as to the question of disability, the Court will sustain Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R. Therefore, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed, benefits will be awarded, and this matter shall be remanded solely for the calculation of social security disability insurance benefits, based upon a disability-onset date of September 20, 1994.

I. BACKGROUND

A. M EDICAL H ISTORY AND BACKGROUND

Dolores Jennings, is a fifty-seven-year-old woman, *fn2 who worked for approximately sixteen years as a telephone maintenance administrator. *fn3 Jennings applied for disability insurance benefits on August 8, 2003, *fn4 alleging she was unable to work because of a combination of several neurological impairments, which cause constant pain to radiate throughout her neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. *fn5 Her alleged disability-onset date is September 20, 1994; her date last insured is December 31, 1998. *fn6 The issue before this Court is whether Jennings was disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Act between the alleged-onset date and her date last insured.

Jennings has suffered from escalating pain in her neck, shoulders, arms, and hands since 1991, when she first began experiencing pain and numbness in her right arm. *fn7 Since then, she has undergone three surgeries in an attempt to resolve her medical issues. *fn8 After her first surgery, she came under the care of Dr. James Hunter, an orthopedic and hand surgeon who treated her from 1992 until his retirement in 1999. *fn9 Although Jennings attempted to return to work after each surgery, each attempt failed. *fn10 Finally, on September 20, 1994, Dr. Hunter concluded there "was nothing to do at this point other than to place the patient at complete rest," because she was "disabled and . . . not able to work." *fn11

In a 1995 and a 1999 deposition, conducted in connection with a worker's compensation claim, *fn12 Dr. Hunter provided extensive testimony about Jennings's treatment and medical condition in the years between her disability onset and her date last insured. In each, Hunter affirmed his medical opinion, as Jennings's treating physician, that Jennings was completely disabled and unable to return to work. *fn13

B. P ROCEDURAL H ISTORY

The procedural history of Plaintiff's claim is complex. To date, this second application for disability benefits-which has been pending since October, 2003-has been the subject of three administrative hearings and three appeals to the Social Security Administration's Appeals Counsel. Two of the appeals resulted in remands; the third is before this Court. Plaintiff's application was first denied at the initial-review level on October 21, 2003. *fn14 Plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was granted. *fn15

ALJ Sylvester A. Puzio issued an unfavorable ruling on June 23, 2005, *fn16 but the Appeals Council remanded the case for further consideration on October 14, 2005. *fn17 After the second hearing before the ALJ, held on February 2, 2007, ALJ Puzio again denied Plaintiff's claim. *fn18 The Appeals Council then remanded the case a second time, directing that another ALJ be assigned to the case, and directed the new ALJ to "obtain evidence from a medical expert qualified in orthopedics, if available," and a vocational expert. *fn19

The third hearing-which is the basis of this appeal-was held on September 22, 2008 before ALJ George C. Yatron. *fn20 Like ALJ Puzio, ALJ Yatron issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act during the four-year period between her disability-onset date and the date last insured. On February 20, 2009, the Appeals Council denied her request for review. *fn21 Plaintiff then initiated the present action on April 17, 2009.

On August 7, 2009, this matter was referred to Magistrate Judge David Strawbridge for a Report and Recommendation. Magistrate Judge Strawbridge recommended that the Court remand the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. Plaintiff timely filed her objections, which were limited to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that the case be remanded, rather then reversed with the award of benefits.

II. STANDARD OF 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. *fn22 The Court's review of legal issues is plenary, but its factual review is limited. *fn23 Accordingly, our review is "limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact." *fn24
Therefore, the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits must be upheld if it is supported by "substantial evidence." *fn25 And while "substantial evidence" is less than a preponderance, it is "more than a mere scintilla." *fn26 It therefore "must be such as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." *fn27 The substantial evidence standard is "deferential and includes deference to inferences drawn from the facts if they, in turn, are supported by substantial evidence." *fn28 Despite the deference to administrative decisions, however, "courts retain a responsibility to scrutinize the entire record and to reverse or remand if the [Commissioner]'s decision is not supported by substantial evidence." *fn29
"A district court, after reviewing the decision of the Secretary may, under 42 U.S.C.§ 405(g) affirm, modify, or reverse the Secretary's position with or without a remand to the Secretary for a rehearing." *fn30 However, the district court may only award benefits when "the administrative record of the case has been fully developed and when substantial evidence on the record as a whole indicates that the Claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits." *fn31 If those conditions are met, "it is unreasonable for the court to give the ALJ another opportunity to consider ...

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