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Timothy J. Castile v. Michael J. Astrue

September 14, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly



Plaintiff Timothy J. Castile ("Castile") 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 his applications 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]. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner will be vacated, and the case will be remanded to him for further administrative proceedings.


Castile protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on March 15, 2006, alleging disability as of June 9, 2005. (R. at 167, 170, 199). The applications were administratively denied on August 31, 2006. (R. at 120, 126, 131, 137). Castile responded on September 21, 2006, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. (R. at 142). On May 27, 2008, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Michael J. Cummings (the "ALJ"). (R. at 80). The ALJ presided over the hearing from Norfolk, Virginia, by means of an electronic video-conferencing apparatus. (R. at 82). Castile, who was represented by counsel, appeared in Erie, Pennsylvania, and testified at the hearing. (R. at 83-96). In a decision dated June 23, 2008, the ALJ determined that Castile was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 99-110).

Castile filed a request for review with the Appeals Council on June 27, 2008, asking that the ALJ‟s decision be reconsidered. (R. at 147). In an order dated October 29, 2008, the Appeals Council granted the request for review, vacated the ALJ‟s decision, and remanded the case to the ALJ for further consideration. (R. at 111-114). A second hearing was held before the ALJ on October 30, 2009. (R. at 52). The ALJ again presided over the hearing from Norfolk.

(R. at 54). Castile appeared in Erie with his counsel and provided additional testimony. (R. at 56-68). Testimony was also provided by Brandy Hornbeck ("Hornbeck"), Castile‟s fiance, and Robin Stromberg ("Stromberg"), an impartial vocational expert. (R. at 68-79). The ALJ determined that Castile was not statutorily "disabled" in a new decision dated December 7, 2009.

(R. at 6-21).

Castile filed another request for review with the Appeals Council on December 22, 2009.

(R. at 4). On May 26, 2010, he supplemented the administrative record by presenting the Appeals Council with the results of a psychological evaluation conducted on April 7, 2010. (R. at 375-383). The Appeals Council denied the request for review on July 28, 2010, thereby making the ALJ‟s second decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. (R. at 115). Castile commenced this action on August 26, 2010, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner‟s decision. (ECF No. 1). Castile and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on December 30, 2010, and February 14, 2011, respectively. (ECF Nos. 9 & 12). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), the parties have consented to have this matter adjudicated by a United States magistrate judge. (ECF Nos. 7 & 8). The cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties are the subject of this memorandum opinion.


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 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." 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 Behalf of Weir v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 955, 961 (3d Cir. 1984); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA"), acting pursuant to its legislatively-delegated rulemaking authority, has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court recently summarized this process as follows:

If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further. At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment," defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant‟s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant‟s impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant‟s age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c). Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25, 124 S.Ct. 376, 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (2003)(footnotes omitted).

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. ...

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