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Todd A. Cornell v. Michael Astrue

July 12, 2012

TODD A. CORNELL, PLAINTIFF
v.
MICHAEL ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

(Complaint Filed 5/3/11)

MEMORANDUM

BACKGROUND

The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Todd A. Cornell's claim for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. For the reasons set forth below we will affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

On August 14, 2007, Cornell filed protectively*fn1 an application for disability insurance benefits and an application for supplemental security income benefits. Tr. 9, 93-94, 125 and 150.*fn2 The applications were initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination*fn3 on January 8, 2008. Tr. 9 and 93-102. On March 6, 2008, Cornell requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 9 and 103. After about 15 months had passed, a hearing was held on May 29, 2009. Tr. 19-75. On August 7, 2009, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Cornell's applications. Tr. 9-18. On August 18, 2009, Cornell filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and on September 24, 2009, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Cornell's request. Tr. 1-5 and 110-111. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Cornell than filed a civil complaint in this court and on March 16, 2010, the case was remanded to the Commissioner based on a motion filed by the Commissioner to remand the case for further proceedings. Tr. 409. A second hearing before the same administrative law judge was held on October 6, 2010. Tr. 328-362. On November 17, 2010, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Cornell's applications. Tr. 282-296 and 309-323. On December 27, 2010, Cornell filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and on April 15, 2011, the Appeals Council deemed Cornell's appeal untimely and advised him that the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 274-276. Cornell was further advised of his right to file an action in federal court. Id.

Cornell then filed a complaint in this court on May 3, 2011. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal*fn4 became ripe for disposition on October 11, 2011, when Cornell elected not to file a reply brief.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and "insured," that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the "date last insured." It is undisputed that Cornell met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011. Tr. 9, 11, 151, 282 and 284.

Supplemental security income is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income.

Cornell, who was born in the United States on May 13, 1969,*fn5 graduated from high school in 1988 and can read, write, speak and understand the English language and perform basic mathematical functions. Tr. 93, 113, 154, 159, 181 and 233. During his elementary and secondary schooling, Cornell attended regular education classes. Tr. 159. After high school Cornell attended Bloomsburg University for "half a semester" and then completed training to become a truck driver and obtained a commercial driver's license in 1998. Tr. 159 and 230-231.
Cornell has past relevant work experience*fn6 as a truck driver, cashier and maintenance worker. Tr. 156 and 353. These positions were described by a vocational expert as semi-skilled, light to medium work.*fn7 Tr. 64 and 353.

Records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Cornell had reported earnings in 1987 through 2007. Tr. 133-134. Cornell's total earnings during those years were $409,387.57. Id. Cornell's last work which amounted to substantial gainful activity was as a truck driver. Tr. 156. He terminated that employment on March 31, 2007. Tr. 155. The record reveals that Cornell did work for five days as a laborer in June, 2007, and at a farmer's market in Bloomsburg sometime during the second half of 2007. Tr. 141 and 231. Cornell has not worked since the second half of 2007. Tr. 231.

Cornell alleges that he became disabled on March 31, 2007, because of depression, obesity and sleep apnea.*fn8 Tr. 22-23, 95, 99 and 155. In documents filed with the Social Security Administration Cornell claimed that he does "not have the drive to work anymore" and that he stopped working in March, 2007, because "he couldn't handle it anymore." Tr. 155. He also claimed that he "feel[s] like [he has] no energy to do anything." Tr. 198.

For the reasons set forth below we will affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying Cornell disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When considering a social security appeal, we have plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security, 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater, 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995). However, our review of the Commissioner's findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether those findings are supported by "substantial evidence." Id.; Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). Factual findings which are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001)("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981)("Findings of fact by the Secretary must be accepted as conclusive by a reviewing court if supported by substantial evidence."); Keefe v. Shalala, 71 F.3d 1060, 1062 (2d Cir. 1995); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 & 1529 n.11 (11th Cir. 1990).

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)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security, 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Brown, 845 F.2d at 1213. In an adequately developed factual record substantial evidence may be "something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo v. Federal Maritime Commission, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record," Cotter, 642 F.2d at 706, and "must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the Commissioner ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason, 994 F.2d at 1064. The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson, 529 F.3d at 203; Cotter, 642 F.2d at 706-707. Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner ...


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