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Belinda Robinson v. Michael J. Astrue

April 19, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer



Belinda Robinson ("Plaintiff") 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 application 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 record has been developed at the administrative level. For the following reasons, the Court finds that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 9) is GRANTED and the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 7) is DENIED.


Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits under the Act on May 27, 2008, alleging disability due to depression, tendonitis and arthritis beginning March 1, 2003. (R. at 9, 47, 77-79). Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on September 12, 2008 and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on October 2, 2008. (R. at 9). A hearing was held before an ALJ on March 31, 2010.

(R. at 9, 35-46). Plaintiff, along with a Vocational Expert ("VE"), appeared and testified at the hearing. (R. at 9). On May 13, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding the Plaintiff not disabled under § 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act. (R. at 19). The ALJ found that the Plaintiff had the ability to perform light work in a low stress work environment and that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. (R. at 17-18). On May 25, 2010, Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ decision by the Appeals Council. (R. at 74-76). Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied on October 6, 2010,*fn1

thereby making the ALJ's decision final. (Document 8 at 1). The Plaintiff also filed for SSI benefits on May 8, 2001, but that application is too remote in time to be reopened. (R. at 9).Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action on November 29, 2010. (Docket No. 3). Plaintiff then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on March 14, 2011. (Docket No. 7). The Commissioner filed his Motion for Summary Judgment on April 4, 2011. (Docket No. 9).


This Court's review is plenary with respect to all questions of law. Demczyk v. Astrue, Civ. Act. No. 10-239, 2010 WL 4257599 (W.D.Pa. Oct. 21, 2010) (citing 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); Caminiti v. Astrue, Civ. A. No. 09-64, 2010 WL 3186697 (W.D.Pa. Aug. 11, 2010) (citing 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 the record. Crawford v. Astrue, Civ. A. No. 08-1160, 2009 WL 1033611 (W.D.Pa. Apr. 15, 2009) (citing Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (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." Price v. Barnhart, 129 F.App'x. 699, 700 (3d Cir. 2005). 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." Dominski v. Astrue, Civ A. No. 07-3595, 2008 WL 4589903 (E.D.Pa. Oct. 2008) (citing 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). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is governed by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)*fn2 , 1383(c)(3).*fn3 Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court is to review transcripts and records upon which the Commissioner based his determination. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Because the standards for eligibility under Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, regarding DIB), and judicial review thereof, are virtually identical to the standards under Title XVI (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f, regarding SSI), regulations and decisions rendered under the Title II disability standard 42 U.S.C. § 423, are pertinent and applicable in Title XVI decisions rendered under 42 U.S.C. § 1381(a). Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 n. 3 (1990); Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 119 n. 1 (3d Cir. 2002).

To be eligible for Social Security benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that she cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period for at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); DeCarlo v. Barnhart, 116 F.App'x. 387, 3890 (3d Cir. 2004). 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). Thus, the ALJ must utilize a five-step sequential analysis when evaluating the disability status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404 Subpt. P., Appx. 1; (4) whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4); see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003).

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 (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 considered 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.

Id. 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 against the record.


a.Plaintiff's Personal Background

Plaintiff was born on January 12, 1965. (R. at 18). Plaintiff is 46 years old, has never been married, and has 4 children.*fn4 (R. at 18, 39, 77, 151). Plaintiff completed her education up to 8th grade and has earned her GED.*fn5 (R. at 39). Subsequent to filing for SSI benefits Plaintiff attended business school full-time for office administration. (R. at 130, 151). Plaintiff was previously employed doing cleaning work at a school and clerical work at a healthcare center. (R. at 40). Plaintiff claims she has been disabled since March 1, 2003 due to depression, tendonitis, and arthritis. (R. at 47). Plaintiff was 38 years old at the time her alleged disability commenced. (R. at 77). Plaintiff has not worked since December 31, 2004. (R. at 84). Plaintiff has a history of smoking cigarettes and denies any alcohol or drug abuse. (R. 126, 138, 173).

b.Plaintiff's Medical Background

i.Department of Public Welfare Medical Assessment: May 23, 2007

On May 23, 2007, Plaintiff was declared permanently disabled by Dr. Omar Bhutta due primarily to recurrent major depression.*fn6 (R. at 122). Dr. Bhutta also noted a tertiary diagnosis of hypothyroidism.*fn7 (Id.).

ii.UPMC Community Medicine Inc., Latterman Family Health Center: April 6, 2004 through March 18, 2008

On April 6, 2004, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Haritha Yalamanchilli for an annual gynecological exam, to discuss allergy medications, and to check the dosage of synthroid*fn8

Plaintiff was taking. (R. at 140). The report notes Plaintiff has a past medical history of sexually transmitted diseases of Trichomonas, Chlamydia, and Gonorrhea. (R. at 141). It also notes that Plaintiff suffers from the thyroid disease, hypothyroidism and is a smoker. (Id.).

On February 10, 2005, Plaintiff again visited Dr. Haritha Yalamanchilli for a general follow-up exam regarding her hypothyroidism and depression. (R. at 137). Plaintiff informed Dr. Yalamancilli that she has been having difficulty sleeping and suffering from night sweats. (R. at 137-38). The report noted that the Plaintiff was in school for medical billing. (R. at 138). Dr. Yalamanchili prescribed trazodone*fn9 for the depression and Synthroid for the hypothyroidism. (Id.). Dr. Yalamanchilli also counseled Plaintiff and gave her information about quitting smoking. (Id.).

On August 18, 2005, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Sandar Win for a routine pap smear and gynecological exam. (R. at 134). No changes in Plaintiff's health or complications were ...

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