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Susan F. Prinkey v. Michael J. Astrue

July 14, 2011


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


I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Susan F. Prinkey ("Plaintiff"), brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which denied her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.

II. Background

A. Facts

Plaintiff was born on July 11, 1955 and was 54 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing. She is a high school graduate and has an associate degree in business management from Westmoreland County Community College. R. 31. Plaintiff last worked in the late 1990s as a clerk at Ames Department Store where she ran a cash register, stocked shelves and set up/dismantled store displays. R. 33. The Vocational Expert testified that Plaintiff‟s job would be classified as a compound job. R. 44. Plaintiff‟s cashier duties would be classified as an unskilled light duty and her duties as a store laborer would be classified as an unskilled medium duty. R. 44.

Plaintiff alleges disability as of October 31, 2008, due to pain in her left shoulder, arthritis in her ankle and high cholesterol. Plaintiff has not engaged in gainful activity since October 31, 2008, the date of her SSI application.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff initially filed an application for SSI on October 31, 2008, the date on which she alleges her disability began. Her claim was denied at the initial level of administrative review and thereafter Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. An administrative hearing was held on October 27, 2009, before Administrative Law Judge Raymond J. Zadzilko ("ALJ"). Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Mitchell A. Schmidt, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also testified at the hearing.

On November 9, 2009, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff in which he found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a wide range of light exertional activities, with certain restrictions, and, therefore, was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ‟s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on August 9, 2010, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff‟s request to review the decision of the ALJ.

On September 27, 2010, Plaintiff filed her Complaint in this Court in which she seeks judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in not properly evaluating Plaintiff‟s left upper extremity impairments and that the ALJ‟s decision is not supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed as it is supported by substantial evidence. The Court agrees with the Commissioner and will therefore grant the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner and deny the motion for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff.

III. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Stunkard v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

When resolving the issue of whether an adult claimant is or is not disabled, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 (1995). This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to his or her past relevant work, and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work. See 42 U.S.C. § 404.1520; Burnett v. Comm'r of Social Security, 220 F.3d 112, 118-19 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Plummer v. Apfel, 186, F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999)).

To qualify for disability benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period."

Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1) (1982).

This may be done in two ways:

(1) by introducing medical evidence that the claimant is disabled per se because he or she suffers from one or more of a number of serious impairments delineated in 20 C.F.R. Regulations No. 4, Subpt. P, AppendiX

1. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1983); Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; or, (2) in the event that claimant suffers from a less severe impairment, by demonstrating that he or she is nevertheless unable to engage in "any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . ." Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(2)(A)).

In order to prove disability under the second method, a claimant must first demonstrate the existence of a medically determinable disability that precludes plaintiff from returning to his or her former job. Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777. Once it is shown that claimant is unable to resume his or her 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. Stunkard, 842 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at777; Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979).

Where a claimant has multiple impairments which may not individually reach the level of severity necessary to qualify any one impairment for Listed Impairment status, the Commissioner nevertheless must consider all of the impairments in combination to determine whether, collectively, they meet or equal the severity of a Listed Impairment. Bailey v. Sullivan, 885 F.2d 52 (3d Cir. 1989) ("in determining an individual‟s eligibility for benefits, the Secretary shall consider the combined effect of all of the ...

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