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Dawnlyn Litz v. Michael J. Astrue

February 10, 2012

DAWNLYN LITZ, 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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Dawnlyn Litz ("Litz") 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 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 Litz (ECF No. 14) will be granted, and the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner (ECF No. 16) will be denied. The decision of the Commissioner will be reversed, and the case will be remanded to him solely for the purpose of calculating the amount of benefits owed to Litz.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Litz initially filed applications for DIB and SSI benefits on August 21, 2000. R. 371.

The applications were denied by Pennsylvania's Bureau of Disability Determination, and Litz filed a request for an administrative hearing. R. 371. On February 20, 2002, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge James S. Bukes (the "ALJ"). R. 371. In a decision dated May 20, 2002, the ALJ determined that Litz was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 371-389. Litz responded by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Litz's request for review on August 28, 2002, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 14. Litz apparently took no further action with respect to those applications.

On August 26, 2002, Litz protectively filed new applications for DIB and SSI benefits, alleging that she had become disabled on April 16, 1998. R. 418-421, 787-790. The applications were administratively denied on June 27, 2003. R. 394, 792. Litz responded on August 11, 2003, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 398. A hearing was held before the ALJ on September 1, 2004. R. 38. Testimony was provided by Litz and Joseph Kuhar ("Kuhar"), an impartial vocational expert. R. 40-70. Since the ALJ's decision denying Litz's earlier claims was given preclusive effect, the subsequent claims were considered only with respect to the period of time commencing on May 21, 2002. R. 15. The ALJ denied Litz's applications in a decision dated October 15, 2004. R. 14-21.

On December 15, 2004, Litz filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. 796-799. The request for review was denied on April 26, 2005, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 6. Litz commenced an action against the Commissioner in this Court on June 30, 2005, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. In a memorandum opinion and order dated October 19, 2006, Judge William L. Standish vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded the case for further consideration of Litz's claims. R. 848-888. On November 2, 2006, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ for a new hearing. R. 847.

A hearing was held before the ALJ in Grove City, Pennsylvania, on August 23, 2007. R. 1121. Litz, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 1124-1152. George Starosta ("Starosta"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing.

R. 1153-1159. In a decision dated December 27, 2007, the ALJ determined that Litz had not been "disabled" within the meaning of the Act at any point subsequent to May 20, 2002. R. 824-839.

Litz filed a request for review on January 25, 2008. R. 823. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on August 23, 2010, and the ALJ's decision denying Litz's claims became the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 810-813. Litz commenced this action on October 25, 2010, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. ECF Nos. 1-3. Litz and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on May 25, 2011, and June 27, 2011, respectively. ECF Nos. 14 & 16. 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 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).

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 ...


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