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Phyllis Edwards v. Michael J. Astrue

April 5, 2011

PHYLLIS EDWARDS
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION



The opinion of the court was delivered by: M. Faith Angell United States Magistrate Judge

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. INTRODUCTION

This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying Plaintiff Phyllis Edwards'*fn1 claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Presently before this Court are the parties' pleadings, including Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law and the Commissioner's response.*fn2 On January 11, 2011, counsel presented oral argument. For the reasons which follow, I recommend that the relief sought by Plaintiff be granted and that this matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further review consistent with this Report and Recommendation.

II. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Ms. Edwards was born on August 8, 1960. Administrative Record*fn3 at 5, 91-92, 139-140.

She has a GED plus additional training as a certified nursing assistant and past work experience as a certified nursing assistant and dietary aide. Record at 15, 25-26. The Vocational Expert (VE) identified the nursing assistant job as semi-skilled and medium duty. The dietary aide position was identified as unskilled, medium duty. Record at 48. Plaintiff alleges an onset disability date of June 16, 2007, arguing that she is disabled as a result of a pinched nerve in her back, meniscus tear of the left knee, asthma, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal reflux disease, and kidney stones. Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law*fn4 at 2.

Ms. Edwards filed an application for DIB benefits on November 8, 2007.*fn5 Record at 10, 91- 92, 110-112. The claim was initially denied on April 18, 2008, and a request for a hearing was timely filed.*fn6 Record at 10.

A Hearing was held on May 4, 2009, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Richard A. Kelly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Record at 10, 20-57. Ms. Edwards testified, represented by her attorney, Robert Petruzelli, Esquire. Agnes Gallen testified as a VE. On May 20, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, status post left knee medial meniscus surgery, mild carpal tunnel syndrome right wrist, and obesity. The ALJ also found that:

[plaintiff's] cervical DDD is not severe as, with an August 2007 MRI of her cervical spine that was normal, it does not significantly limit her ability to do basic work activities. Also, [plaintiff] has been recently diagnosed with gout, but [he found] that it is not severe as it does not meet the durational requirement that an impairment must last for a continuous period of at least 12 months (20 CFR 404.1509).

Record at 12. He further found that Ms. Edwards was not disabled because she had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform between sedentary and light work. Record at 13. Ms. Edwards sought review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on January 13, 2010. Record at 1-3. On March 12, 2010, Plaintiff filed this action alleging that the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits is not in accordance with the law and is not supported by substantial evidence.

III. SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY LAW

A. Disability Determination

The Social Security Act authorizes several classes of disability benefits, including DIB benefits. In order to qualify for benefits, a claimant must be classified as "disabled" under the Act and the accompanying regulations.

To establish a disability under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any "'substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999); 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A).

The Commissioner's regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether or not a claimant is under a disability. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. Step one states that an individual who is working will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(b). Step two involves evaluating severe impairments. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520©. Step three requires determining whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(d).

Step four states that if an individual can perform past relevant work, he will not be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(e). Step five requires that if an individual cannot perform past relevant work, other factors must be considered to determine if other work in the national economy can be performed. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(f). See e.g. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 546, 550-51 (3d Cir. 2004).

It is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve conflicts in the evidence and to determine credibility and the relative weights to be given to the evidence. Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (3d Cir. 1999); Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993). The ALJ's conclusions must be accepted unless they are without basis in the record. Torres v. Harris, 494 F.Supp. 267, 301 (E.D. Pa. 1980), aff'd. 659 F.2d 1071 (3d Cir. 1981).

B. Judicial Review of Disability Decisions

The role of this Court on judicial review is to determine whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 38 (3d Cir. 2001); Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 84 (3d Cir. 2000). Substantial evidence is defined as the relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988); Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 316 (3d Cir. 2000). It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence. Id. It is not the role of this Court to re-weigh the evidence of record or substitute its own conclusions for that of the ALJ. See e.g. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002).

Upon appeal to this Court, the Commissioner's factual determinations, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. The conclusiveness applies both to findings of fact and to inferences reasonably drawn from that evidence. Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 38 (3d Cir.2001) ("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently.")

IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

At the May 4, 2009, Hearing, the ALJ received medical evidence, heard Plaintiff's testimony and received testimony from a VE. After considering all the evidence of record, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Edwards was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from ...


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