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Heather Marie Stewart v. Michael J. Astrue

December 12, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Caputo)

(Complaint Filed 5/20/2011)



The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Heather Marie Stewart's claim for social security disability insurance benefits.

On June 9, 2008, Stewart filed protectively*fn1 an application for disability insurance benefits. Tr. 133-140 and 172.*fn2 The application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination*fn3 on January 7, 2009. Tr. 93-97. On February 6, 2009, Stewart requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 12 and 98. After 11 months had elapsed, a hearing was held on January 6, 2010. Tr. 26-90. On March 18, 2010, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Stewart's application. Tr. 12-21. On April 12, 2010, Stewart filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and on March 25, 2011, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Stewart's request. Tr. 1-8.

Stewart then filed a complaint in this court on May 20, 2011. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal*fn4 became ripe for disposition on January 25, 2012, when Stewart filed 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 Stewart met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011. Tr. 12, 14 and 145.

Stewart, who was born in the United States on March 8, 1967, graduated from high school in 1986 and can read, write, speak and understand the English language and perform basic mathematical functions.*fn5 Tr. 34, 133, 145, 156, 162, 186 and 828. During her elementary and secondary schooling, Stewart attended regular education classes. Tr. 162.

Stewart has past relevant employment*fn6 as a nursing assistant which was described by a vocational expert as semi-skilled, medium work; a warehouse worker described as unskilled, medium work; a personal attendant described as semi-skilled, light work; and an assembler of small products described as unskilled, light work. Tr. 70.*fn7

Records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Stewart had reported earnings in the years 1986 through 1992 and 1994 through 2006. Tr. 146. Her annual earnings ranged from a low of $699.88 in 1994 to a high of $17,690.47 in 1998. Id. Although Stewart stopped working in August, 2006, she does not claim that she became disabled until May 30, 2007. Tr. 133, 157 and 175; Doc. 18, Plaintiff's Brief, p. 2. Stewart alleges that she is unable to work because of physical and psychiatric problems, including chronic back pain and depression. Id.

For the reasons set forth below, we will remand this case to the Commissioner for further consideration.


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 ...

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