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Douglas Smith v. Carolyn W. Colvin

May 8, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: A. Richard Caputo United States District Judge

(Judge Caputo)

(Complaint Filed 11/8/11)



The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Douglas Smith's claim for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

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 Smith meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. Tr. 11, 13, 121, 123 and 139.*fn1

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.

On October 20, 2009, Smith filed protectively*fn2 an application for disability insurance benefits and an application for supplemental security income benefits. Tr. 11, 69, 70, 110-120, 125-126, 136 and 139. The applications were initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination*fn3 on February 12, 2010. Tr. 11 and 77-84. On April 23, 2010, Smith requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 11 and 92-94. After over 10 months had passed, a hearing was held on March 3, 2011. Tr. 11 and 21-67. On May 25, 2011, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Smith's applications. Tr. 11-20. On July 25, 2011, Smith filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and on September 9, 2011, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Smith's request. Tr. 1-3 and 5-7. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Smith then filed a complaint in this court on November 8, 2011. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal*fn4 became ripe for disposition on May 14, 2012, when Smith elected not to file a reply brief.

Smith, who was born in the United States on July 18, 1982, withdraw from school in 1999 after completing the 11th grade. Tr. 110, 114, 136 and 149. Smith stated in documents filed with the Social Security Administration that he can read, write, speak and understand the English language and perform basic mathematical functions such as counting change. Tr. 143 and 156. During his elementary and secondary schooling, Smith attended regular education classes. Tr. 149. After withdrawing from school, Smith did not obtain a General Equivalency Diploma. Tr. 34. Smith completed in 1999 some training in "electrical construction." Tr. 150.

Smith has past relevant employment*fn5 as a laborer in a print factory which was described by a vocational expert as unskilled, heavy work; as a welder/steel fabricator which was described as semi-skilled, medium work; as a stocker/cleaner/cashier at a convenience store described as semi-skilled, heavy work; as a butcher at a grocery store described as skilled, heavy work; as an assistant in a meat department of a grocery store described as unskilled, heavy work; as a fast food worker (cook/preparer) described as skilled, medium work; as a laborer at a steel rope factory described as semi-skilled, medium work; and as a laborer at a tire store/garage described as semi-skilled, heavy work.*fn6 Tr. 50-53, 145 and 164.

Records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Smith had earnings in the years 1999 through 2008. Tr. 122. Smith's highest annual earnings were in 2001 ($12,571.39) and his second highest earnings in 2008 ($11,900.43). Id. Under the regulations of the Social Security Administration, Smith's work and earnings only amounted to substantial gainful activity in 2001 and 2008.*fn7 Smith's total reported earnings from 1999 through 2008 were $58,296.84. Id. Smith has no reported earnings after 2008. Id.

Smith claims that he became disabled on October 19, 2008,*fn8 because of both physical and mental impairments. Tr. 99, 118, 164. The physical impairments alleged include a history of multiple fractures of the bones of the lower limbs and a fracture of a thoracic vertebra. Tr. 13, 69, 81 and 144. The mental impairments alleged are anxiety and panic attacks. Tr. 42-43. The impetus for Smith's impairments was a motorcycle accident that occurred on October 19, 2008. Tr. 144. The injuries sustained can be fairly described as recklessly, or at least negligently, self-inflicted harm. Smith after consuming alcohol to the point of intoxication (over twice the legal limit)*fn9 fled from the police on the motorcycle and crashed into a parked vehicle. Tr. 328, 468 and 472; Doc. 6, Plaintiff's Brief, p. 2. Smith suffered an open left tibia (shinbone) fracture, a left comminuted*fn10 fibula (the calf bone) fracture, a non-displaced right fibula fracture, burns across the lower calf involving skin loss, a burst compression fracture of the T12 vertebral body and pedicles,*fn11 fractures of the nasal bones, severe facial and scalp lacerations and a neck laceration. Tr. 255-256, 399, 406, 466-468 and 472-474. Smith was initially treated in the emergency department at the Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center but was then admitted to the hospital on October 19, 2008 and not discharged until November 7, 2008. Id. During his hospital stay, Smith underwent, inter alia, spinal fusion surgery. Id. Smith claims that his mental impairments and the pain associated with his physical impairments prevent him from working in any capacity. Id.

The administrative record in this case is 584 pages in length and we have thoroughly reviewed that record. The medical records reveal that Smith sustained substantial physical trauma as a result of the motorcycle ...

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