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Michael T. Murray v. Michael J. Astrue

April 27, 2012

MICHAEL T. MURRAY, 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 Michael T. Murray ("Murray") 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, Murray's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 9) will be granted, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 11) will be denied, and the Commissioner's decision denying Murray's applications for DIB and SSI benefits will be reversed.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Murray protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on November 27, 2007, alleging that he had become "disabled" on April 1, 1996. R. 128, 131, 152. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination denied the applications on September 19, 2008. R. 89, 95, 100, 106. Murray responded on September 25, 2008, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 111-113. On January 19, 2010, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Guy Koster (the "ALJ"). R. 28. Before testimony was taken, Murray amended his alleged onset date to August 27, 2007. R. 30. Murray, who was represented by counsel, testified about his impairments and concomitant limitations. R. 31-53. Mary Beth Kopar ("Kopar"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 53-56. In a decision dated May 26, 2010, the ALJ determined that Murray was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 9-21.

On July 20, 2010, Murray sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a timely request for review with the Appeals Council. R. 6-7. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on February 7, 2011, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 1. Murray commenced this action on April 1, 2011, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. ECF Nos. 1-3. Murray and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on September 7, 2011, and October 7, 2011, respectively. ECF Nos. 9 & 11. 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). Factual findings pertaining to all steps of the sequential evaluation process are subject to judicial review under the "substantial evidence" standard. McCrea v. Commissioner of Social Security, 370 F.3d 357, 360-361 (3d Cir. 2004).

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 Murray had not engaged in substantial gainful activity subsequent to his amended onset date. R. 14. Murray was found to be suffering from a history of bilateral hip replacement for avascular necrosis, degenerative disc disease (with a history of lumbar laminectomy), morbid obesity, depressive disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, herpetic keratitis (with a history of eye infections), and hypertension. R. 14-15. Although his hypertension was deemed to be "non-severe," his remaining impairments were deemed to be "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations. R. 14-15; 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), ...


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