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Mary Jones O/B/O Christopher Jones v. Michael J. Astrue

September 29, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge

Electronically Filed


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Mary Jones ("Mary") 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 late husband‟s 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]. Consistent with the customary practice in the Western District of Pennsylvania, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment based on the record developed during the administrative proceedings. ECF Nos. 7 & 9. After careful consideration of the Commissioner‟s decision, the memoranda of the parties, and the entire evidentiary record, the Court is convinced that the Commissioner‟s decision is "supported by substantial evidence" within the meaning of § 405(g). Therefore, the motion for summary judgment filed by Mary (ECF No. 9) will be denied, the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner (ECF No. 7) will be granted, and the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

II. Procedural History

Decedent Christopher Jones ("Jones") protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on November 15, 2005. R. 10, 135. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination denied the applications on February 17, 2006. R. 10, 70. Jones apparently took no further action with respect to those applications. R. 10.

Jones protectively filed the instant applications for DIB and SSI benefits on December 27, 2007, alleging disability as of May 27, 2005. R. 101, 105, 181. The applications were administratively denied on March 27, 2008. R. 60, 65. On May 9, 2008, Jones filed a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 10, 75-76. Jones died on June 19, 2009, at the age of fifty-nine. R. 130-131.

On August 17, 2009, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge James Bukes (the "ALJ"). R. 18. Mary, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 22-28. Acknowledging that Jones had returned to work in August 2008, Mary‟s counsel argued in favor of a closed period of disability commencing on May 27, 2005, and ending on July 31, 2008. R. 21-22. Samuel Edelman ("Edelman"), an impartial vocational expert, provided testimony relating to the demands of Jones‟ prior jobs. R. 29-30.

In a decision dated October 6, 2009, the ALJ determined that the doctrine of res judicata precluded further consideration as to whether Jones had been "disabled" on or before February 17, 2006. R. 10, 13. The ALJ further concluded that Jones had not been "disabled" between February 18, 2006, and July 31, 2008. R. 17. Mary filed a request for review with the Appeals Council on December 3, 2009, seeking administrative review of the ALJ‟s decision. R. 4. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on December 29, 2010, thereby making the ALJ‟s decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 1. Mary commenced this action against the Commissioner on March 9, 2011, seeking judicial review of his decision.*fn1 ECF No.

3. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on August 15, 2011. ECF Nos. 7 & 9. 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). A United States District 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 (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. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & 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 ...

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