The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan
Plaintiff Joseph Bedard ("Bedard") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 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.
Bedard protectively applied for SSI benefits on February 28, 2008, alleging that he had become disabled on February 1, 2008. R. at 102, 131. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination ("Bureau") denied the application on June 30, 2008. R. at 70. Bedard responded on September 5, 2008, by filing a request for an administrative hearing. R. at 75-76. On January 15, 2010, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge James Bukes (the "ALJ"). R. at 47. Bedard, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. at 49-64.
Alina Kurtanich ("Kurtanich"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. at 64-66.
In a decision dated March 17, 2010, the ALJ determined that Bedard was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. at 8-19. On May 13, 2010, Bedard sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. at 7. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on December 22, 2010, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. at 1. Bedard commenced this action on February 16, 2011, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. ECF Nos. 1 & 2. Bedard and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on June 10, 2011, and August 10, 2011, respectively. ECF Nos. 10 & 14. 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 No. 7. 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 by stating 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).
Section 105 of the Contract With America Advancement Act of 1996 ("CWAAA") amended the Social Security Act to provide that "an individual shall not be considered to be disabled" thereunder if "alcoholism or drug addiction" would be "a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled." Pub. L. No. 104-121, § 105; 110 Stat. 847, 852-853 (1996); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(C), 1382c(a)(3)(J). The Commissioner has promulgated regulations to implement the statutory mandate of the CWAAA. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535, 416.935. Under the applicable regulations, the critical question is whether a claimant who is disabled as a result of drug or alcohol use would remain disabled if he or she were to stop using those substances. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535(b)(1), 416.935(b)(1). If his or her disability would persist even after a cessation of drug or alcohol abuse, he or she is entitled to an award of benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535(b)(2)(ii), ...