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Lagner v. Astrue

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 5, 2012

DAVID S. LAGNER, Claimant,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM ON REQUEST FOR REVIEW

Michael M. Baylson, U.S.D.J.

Claimant David S. Lagner seeks judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner (the “Commissioner”) of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33. After careful consideration of all the relevant facts and circumstances, and for the reasons explained below, Lagner’s request for review of the May 25, 2011 decision of the Appeals Council is DENIED and his Complaint is DISMISSED with prejudice.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On April 23, 2009, Lagner filed an application for DIB, alleging disability beginning on December 1, 2007 due to depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, panic attacks, loss of appetite, and failure to concentrate. (Tr. 165-66, 188.) On September 2, 2009, the SSA denied his application. (Id. at 79-84.) Subsequently, on September 28, 2009, Lagner filed a written request for an administrative hearing regarding his application. (Id. at 86.) A hearing originally scheduled for December 2, 2009 was postponed to allow Lagner an opportunity to seek legal represenation. (Id. at 27.) After Lagner had retained counsel, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Eric Schwarz in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 8, 2010. (Id.) At the hearing, Lagner appeared and testified on his own behalf. A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared at the hearing and testified. (Id.)

On April 9, 2010, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision regarding Lagner’s application. (Id. at 36.) The ALJ determined that Lagner suffers from severe impairments of cervical radiculopathy, hisotry of alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, and a panic disorder. (Id. at 29.) However, the ALJ determined that Lagner does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ also determined that Lagner has the residual functional capacity (the “RFC”) to perform “light work, ” as that term is defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except that he is capable of performing “no more than simple, unskilled tasks” and that his “work goals can be made up by the end of the work shift or the workday to accommodate brief periods of inattention.” (Id. at 31.) Finally, the ALJ determined that, although Lagner is unable to perform any past relevant work, he can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC. (Id. at 35-36.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Lagner was not disabled under the Act. (Id. at 36.)

On April 16, 2010, Lagner sought review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council. (Id. at 21-22.) On March 1, 2011, the Appeals Council notified Lagner that it had granted his request for review and proposed to issue a partially favorable decision finding him disabled as of April 4, 2010, but not before that date. (Id. at 161-64.) The Appeals Council also informed Lagner that it would consider any comments or new evidence submitted by him within thirty days from the date of the notice. (Id. at 162.) The Appeals Council specifically noted that any new evidence submitted should pertain to Lagner’s alleged disability prior to April 4, 2010, the date the Appeals Council intended to find him disabled. (Id.) In response to the Appeal’s Council’s proposed action, Lagner submitted a letter, dated January 28, 2011 from one Robin Schor, M.D., Lagner’s treating psychiatrist, along with a supporting brief. (Id. at 268-69, 558.)

On May 25, 2011, the Appeals Council issued a partially favorable decision finding Lagner disabled as of April 4, 2010, but not before that date.[1] The Appeals Council concurred with and adopted the ALJ’s determination that Lagner does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 5.) Additionally, the Appeals Council concurred with and adopted the ALJ’s determinations that Lagner is limited to unskilled light work and is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id.)

However, the Appeals Council disagreed with the ALJ’s treatment of Lagner’s ability to work. Applying the age categories set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563, the Appeals Council determined that Lagner could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, but only from December 1, 2007, the alleged onset date, through April 3, 2010. (Id.) On April 4, 2010, the day before Lagner turned 55 years old, he moved into the “advanced age” category pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(e). (Id.) Taking into account Lagner’s vocational background and his RFC for unskilled work, the Appeals Council determined that medical-vocational Rule 202.06 in Appendix 2 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 directed a conclusion that he is disabled under the Act. (Id.) Accordingly, the Appeals Council concluded that Lagner was disabled as of April 4, 2010, but not before that date. (Id. at 6.)

The Appeals Council’s May 25, 2011 decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). On July 28, 2011, Lagner filed a Complaint in this Court, requesting review of the Commissioner’s decision. (ECF No. 3.) On May 18, 2012, Lagner filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, or in the Alternative, a Motion for Remand, accompanied by a Brief and Statement of the Issues in Support of Request for Review. (ECF No. 14.) On June 7, 2012, the Commissioner filed a Response in opposition thereto (ECF no. 15), and on June 14, 2012, Lagner filed a Reply (ECF No. 16).

II. Legal Standards

A. Jurisdiction

The Social Security Act provides for judicial review by this Court of any “final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security” in a disability proceeding. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). A district court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” Id.

B. Standard of Review

On judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision, the Commissioner’s findings of fact, “if supported by substantial evidence, ” are conclusive. Id. Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Smith v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 632, 633 (3d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). It is a standard requiring “less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, however, the Court must “not weigh the evidence or substitute [its own] conclusions for those of the fact finder.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d ...


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