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Deborah Ann Shar v. Michael J. Astrue

May 21, 2012

DEBORAH ANN SHAR, 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 Deborah Ann Shar ("Shar") 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 the Commissioner will be denied, and the motion for summary judgment filed by Shar will be denied to the extent that it requests an award of benefits but granted to the extent that it seeks a vacation of the Commissioner's administrative decision, and a remand for further proceedings. The decision of the Commissioner will be vacated, and the case will be remanded to him for further consideration of Shar's applications for DIB and SSI benefits.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Shar protectively applied for DIB and SSI benefits on February 7, 2008, alleging that she had become "disabled" on December 31, 2005. R. 67, 72, 88. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination denied the applications on July 23, 2008. R. 39, 44. Shar responded on August 25, 2008, by filing a timely request for an administrative hearing. R. 50-51. On January 28, 2010, a hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") David J. Kozma. R. 27. Shar, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 29-34. Samuel E. Edelmann ("Edelmann"), an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. R. 33-34. In a decision dated February 19, 2010, the ALJ determined that Shar was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 7-18.

On February 26, 2010, Shar sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. 6, 116-117. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on February 11, 2011, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. 1. Shar commenced this action on March 23, 2011, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. ECF Nos. 1-3. Shar and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on October 14, 2011, and November 17, 2011, respectively. ECF Nos. 10 & 12. 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 Shar had not engaged in substantial gainful activity subsequent to her alleged onset date. R. 12. Shar was found to be suffering from degenerative disc disease, a right patellar dislocation, emphysema, a major depressive disorder, a bipolar disorder, and an anxiety disorder. R. 12. These impairments were deemed to be "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations. R. 12; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). The ALJ concluded that Shar's impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 12-14.

In accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945, the ALJ determined that Shar had the "residual functional capacity"*fn1 to perform the full range of "unskilled"*fn2 work at the "medium"*fn3 level of exertion. R. 14. Shar had "past relevant work"*fn4 experience as an activity coordinator for a nursing home. R. 32-33. Edelmann classified Shar's previous position as an "unskilled" job falling between the "light"*fn5 and "medium" levels of exertion. R. 33. Because Shar was found to be capable of performing the full range of "unskilled," "medium" work, the ALJ concluded that she could return to her past relevant work.

V. VOCATIONAL FACTORS

Shar was born on June 26, 1953, making her fifty-two years old on her alleged onset date and fifty-six years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. R. 33, 67, 72. As of her alleged onset date, she was classified as a "person closely approaching advanced age" under the Commissioner's regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). Shar became a "person of advanced age" on June 28, 2008, when she reached the age of fifty-five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(e), 416.963(e). She had a high ...


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