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Nena N. Haynes v. Michael J. Astrue

May 26, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge, U.S. District Court



Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. ' 405(g). She seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security that denied her application for disability benefits. The matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. Although the ALJ's opinion is thorough and well-reasoned, it is unclear whether he considered certain evidence, as discussed below. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be granted, and Defendant's denied, solely to the extent that this matter will be remanded for the limited purpose of clarification.


Plaintiff filed for SSI on September 26, 2006. She alleged disability based on depression, learning disability, diabetes mellitus, and asthma. The claim was denied on February 8, 2007. Plaintiff requested and received a hearing on April 10, 2007; the hearing was held on July 10, 2008. Upon hearing, by decision dated September 19, 2008, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's subsequent request for review.

Plaintiff then filed this appeal. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, and should be reversed. Defendant contends the contrary. Presently, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.


Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002).

Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390. A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 - 97, 67 S. Ct. 1575, 91 L. Ed. 1995 (1947). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, such findings are binding. Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2000).

While the ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record, he must provide at least a glimpse into his reasoning. Zurawski, 245 F.3d at 889. "Even if enough evidence exists in the record to support the decision, [the court] cannot uphold it if 'the reasons given by the trier of fact do not build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result. '" Hodes v. Apfel, 61 F. Supp. 2d 798, 806 (N.D. Ill. 1999) (quoting Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (1996)).


To be eligible for social security benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that he 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 of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986). The ALJ must utilize a five-step sequential analysis when evaluating whether a claimant has met the requirements for disability 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

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 a 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 him from performing his 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, 124 S. Ct. 376, 157 L. Ed. 2d 333 (2003). If the claimant is determined to be unable to resume previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that, given claimant's mental or physical limitations, age, education, and work experience, he or she is able to perform substantial gainful activity in jobs available in the national economy. Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986).

In this appeal, Plaintiff's focus rests on issues surrounding her mental health, rather than her physical condition.*fn1 Pertinent here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion offered by Ms. Sharo, a certified nurse practitioner at Sharon Regional Health System. In August of 2007, Ms. Sharo completed a Medical Assessment of Ability to Perform Work-Related Activities. She opined, inter alia, that Plaintiff had impulse control disorder, mild mental retardation, and difficulty carrying out instructions. As Plaintiff concedes, Ms. Sharo is ...

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