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Eugene H. Mccleary, Jr v. Michael J. Astrue

September 15, 2011

EUGENE H. MCCLEARY, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David Stewart Cercone United States District Judge

Electronic Filing

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Eugene H. McCleary, Jr. ("McCleary"), 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]. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the record has been developed at the administrative level. For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment filed by McCleary (ECF No. 5) will be denied, the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner (ECF No. 7) will be granted, and the Commissioner‟s administrative decision will be affirmed.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

McCleary protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on April 27, 2006, alleging disability as of March 10, 2006. R. 69, 74, 92, 125. The applications were administratively denied on October 18, 2006. R. 51, 56. McCleary responded on November 17, 2006, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 63. On April 1, 2008, a hearing was held in Seven Fields, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge James J. Pileggi (the "ALJ"). R. 23. McCleary, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 27-41. Dr. Fred Monaco, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 41-45. In a decision dated June 20, 2008, the ALJ determined that McCleary was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 11-22. McCleary filed a request for review with the Appeals Council on June 26, 2008. R. 10. He later submitted documentary evidence to the Appeals Council that had never been presented to the ALJ. R. 4-5, 544-593. The Appeals Council denied McCleary‟s request for review on June 25, 2010, thereby making the ALJ‟s decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 1. McCleary commenced this action on August 25, 2010, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner‟s decision. ECF No. 1. McCleary and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on November 30, 2010, and January 13, 2011, respectively. ECF Nos. 5 & 7. These motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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 clearly has 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. 194, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (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 considers 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.

Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 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. Cefalu v. Barnhart, 387 F.Supp.2d 486, 491 (W.D.Pa. 2005).

IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

In his decision, the ALJ determined that McCleary had not engaged in substantial gainful activity subsequent to his alleged onset date. R. 16. McCleary was found to be suffering from "status-post right occipital ischemic infarction," a "loss of vision at the left visual field," and "bilateral hearing loss." R. 16. His eye impairments were deemed to be "severe" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and 416.920(a)(4)(ii), while his hearing impairment was deemed to be "nonsevere." R. 16. The ALJ concluded that McCleary‟s impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listing of Impairments" or, with respect to a single impairment, a "Listed Impairment" or "Listing"). R. 17.

In accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945, the ALJ assessed McCleary‟s residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant cannot be exposed to loud noises or a visually stimulative environment. The claimant is unable to drive and cannot perform work requiring binocular vision.

R. 17. McCleary had past work experience as a mechanic, sheeter and welder. R. 42. Dr. Monaco testified that these jobs were classified at the "heavy"*fn1 level of exertion. R. 42. Since McCleary was found to be limited to "light"*fn2 work, it was determined that he could not return to his "past relevant work."*fn3 R. 20.

McCleary was born on July 18, 1963, making him forty-two years old on his alleged onset date and forty-four years old on the date of the ALJ‟s decision. R. 27-28. He was classified as a "younger person" under the Commissioner‟s regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). He had the equivalent of a high school education and an ability to communicate in English. R. 95, 102; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564(b)(4)-(5), 416.964(b)(4)-(5). Given the applicable residual functional capacity and vocational assessments, the ALJ concluded that McCleary could work as a bench assembler, a document preparer, or an unarmed guard. R. 21. Dr. ...


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