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Lester A. Yorgey v. Michael J. Astrue

December 11, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baylson, J.


Claimant Lester A. Yorgey ("Yorgey") seeks judicial review of the decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits 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, Yorgey's request for review of the August 10, 2009 decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is DENIED insofar as it seeks judgment as a matter of law and GRANTED insofar as it seeks vacatur and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background and Procedural History

On December 14, 2004, Yorgey filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on April 4, 2004 due to a combination of physical and mental impairments. [Tr. 18] Yorgey was 33 years old on the date he alleges he became disabled and has significant past work experience as a concrete construction worker. [Tr. 256, 313] He asserts that he suffers from a combination of mental disorders as well as back and other pains related to lumbar degenerative disorder. [Tr. 134-151]

The state agency denied Yorgey's application on April 6, 2005. [Tr. 18] At Yorgey's request, a hearing was held on April 22, 2005 before ALJ Suanne S. Strauss regarding Yorgey's application for benefits. Yorgey was represented by counsel and testified on his own behalf; a vocational expert (VE) also testified. [Tr. 18] At the hearing, Yorgey amended his application to request a "closed period" of disability, beginning with the same April 4, 2004 "onset" date but ending on May 16, 2006.*fn1 [Tr. 18]

On May 22, 2007, ALJ Strauss issued an unfavorable decision regarding Yorgey's application. Among other things, ALJ Strauss determined that Yorgey's drug abuse was material to a finding of disability, and absent consideration of his drug abuse, his remaining limitations were not disabling. [Tr. 47] She further concluded, pursuant to the VE's testimony, that Yorgey was capable of performing a range of light exertional work, including work as an assembler, garment sorter/folder, visual inspector, or hand packer. [Tr. 54]

Yorgey sought review of the ALJ's decision before the Appeals Council. On March 18, 2009, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. In its written order, the Appeals Council noted that certain medical opinions, including a mental status examination conducted in 2005, a State Agency medical consultation also conducted in 2005, and a physical therapist's opinion in 2006, were not adequately evaluated in the ALJ's decision. [Tr. 97] The order instructed that, on remand, the ALJ should (1) give further consideration to the treating and examining source opinions, (2) further evaluate Yorgey's mental impairments, (3) further consider Yorgey's maximum RFC and explain the rationale behind that determination, and (4) if warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a VE to clarify the effects of Yorgey's limitations on his occupational base. [Tr. 98]

The case was reassigned to ALJ Sylvester A. Puzio, who held a new hearing on the matter on June 19, 2009. [Tr. 18] Again, Yorgey was represented by counsel and testified on his own behalf; a VE did not testify. [Tr. 18] On August 10, 2009, ALJ Puzio issued a written decision denying Yorgey's application for benefits. The ALJ found that Yorgey had severe impairments of lumbar degenerative disc disease, bipolar disorder/depression disorder, and substance abuse disorder. [Tr. 21] He further determined that Yorgey's combined mental impairments met the criteria for sections 12.04 and 12.09 of 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, though his physical impairments did not satisfy the criteria for section 1.04. The ALJ found that the substance abuse disorder was a material factor contributing to these findings. [Tr. 21]

The ALJ defined Yorgey's RFC during the closed period as the capacity "to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; [as well as] simple, repetitive work with no sustained public contact and no mandated teams, and it must be as self-paced as possible so that any periods of inattention could be made up by the end of the work day." [Tr. 25] This was the same RFC articulated by the first ALJ at the first hearing. [Tr. 51] Finally, ALJ Puzio determined that, pursuant to the VE's testimony at the first hearing, Yorgey's RFC permitted him to perform a limited range of light exertional work. Although he could not perform his past relevant work, he could perform other jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy; thus, Yorgey was not "disabled" under the Act. [ Tr. 27-28]

Yorgey timely filed a request for review of the second ALJ decision, which the Appeals Council denied. [Tr. 7-9] Yorgey then filed the instant action, requesting review of the Commissioner's denial of his disability claim. [ECF No. 1] On October 31, 2011, he moved for summary judgment, and on December 5, 2011, the government submitted its response. [ECF Nos. 7, 8] Yorgey replied on December 8, 2011. [ECF No. 9]

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 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court's review of the legal standards applied by the ALJ is plenary. See Allen v. Barnhart, 417 ...

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