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Diane Jean Hall v. Michael J. Astrue

March 31, 2011


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

ECF Nos. 11,16


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Diane Jean Hall ("Hall") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433] and partially denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Act [42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f]. Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. ECF Nos. 11 & 16. For the reasons that follow, Hall‟s motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 11) will be denied, the Commissioner‟s motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 16) will be granted, and the administrative decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

II. Procedural History

Hall‟s first applications for DIB and SSI benefits were filed on November 15, 2004. R. at 11. The applications were initially denied on January 14, 2005. R. at 129. No further action was taken with respect to those applications. R. at 11.

Hall protectively filed the instant applications for DIB and SSI benefits on March 10, 2006, alleging disability as of August 30, 2000.*fn1 R. at 102, 108, 128. The applications were administratively denied on October 20, 2006. R. at 11, 74. Hall responded on December 14, 2006, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. at 79. On March 5, 2008, a hearing was held in Morgantown, West Virginia, before Administrative Law Judge George A. Mills III (the "ALJ"). R. at 22. Hall, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. at 31-51. Dr. Larry Ostrowski, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. at 51-64.

In a decision dated June 4, 2008, the ALJ determined that Hall had become "disabled" within the meaning of the Act on June 1, 2006, but that she had not been "disabled" before that date. R. at 7-20. Hall was insured for benefits under Title II only through December 31, 2005.

R. at 12. Therefore, she was awarded only SSI benefits under Title XVI. R. at 20. On August 4, 2008, Hall filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. at 5. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on June 10, 2010, thereby making the ALJ‟s decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. at 1.

Hall commenced this action on August 5, 2010, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner‟s decision. ECF 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. ECF Nos. 7 & 8. Hall and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on November 30, 2010, and February 4, 2011, respectively. 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 clearly has 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 ...

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