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Fedore v. Colvin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 19, 2013

PAUL WASHINGTON FEDORE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ARTHUR J. SCHWAB, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Paul Washington Fedore ("Fedore") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f]. The matter is presently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. ECF Nos. 10 & 12. For the reasons that follow, Fedore's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 12) will be denied, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 10) will be granted, and the final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

II. Procedural History

Fedore applied for DIB and SSI benefits on November 14, 2008, alleging that he had become "disabled" on June 30, 2008. R. 134, 138. Pennsylvania's Bureau of Disability Determination ("Bureau") denied the applications on March 16, 2009. R. 70, 75. Fedore apparently took no further action with respect to those applications.

On October 21, 2009, Fedore protectively filed new applications for DIB and SSI benefits. R. 149, 151, 172. He continued to allege the existence of a "disability" beginning on June 30, 2008. R. 149, 151. The applications were denied by the Bureau on February 25, 2010. R. 86, 91. Fedore responded on March 3, 2010, by filing a request for an administrative hearing. R. 96-97. On April 18, 2011, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Douglas Cohen. R. at 28. Fedore, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. 31-50. Testimony about Fedore's medical condition was also given by his treating clinician, Rebecca Oxley ("Oxley"), and his father, Michael John Fedore ("Michael"). R. 51-63. Dr. William Houston Reed, an impartial vocational expert, testified about the typical requirements of jobs existing in the national economy. R. 64-66. In a decision dated May 18, 2011, the ALJ determined that Fedore was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. 7-21. Since the earlier applications had been denied on March 16, 2009, the ALl's decision adjudicated Fedore's status only in relation to the period of time following that date. R. at 10.

After receiving notice of the ALJ's decision, Fedore exhausted his administrative remedies by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. 232-233. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on August 31, 2012, thereby making the ALl's decision the "final decision" of the Commissioner in this case. R. 1. Fedore commenced this action on October 26, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. ECF Nos. 1 & 2. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment[1] on March 27, 2013. ECF Nos. 10 & 12. Those motions are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

III. Standard of Review

This Court's review is plenary with respect to all questions of law. Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). With respect to factual issues, judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). A United States District Court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-1191 (3d Cir. 1986). Congress has clearly expressed its intention that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). As long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it cannot be set aside even if this Court "would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

In order to establish a disability under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate a "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him [or her] from engaging in any substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Stunkard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is considered to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity "only if his [or her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To support his or her ultimate findings, an administrative law judge must do more than simply state factual conclusions. He or she must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). The administrative law judge must consider all medical evidence contained in the record and provide adequate explanations for disregarding or rejecting evidence. Weir on Behalf of Weir v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 955, 961 (3d Cir. 1984); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA"), acting pursuant to its legislatively delegated rule making authority, has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court recently summarized this process as follows:

If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further. At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity."[20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment, " defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. §§ 404. 1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(1), 404.1 560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c).

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003) (footnotes omitted). Factual findings pertaining to all steps of the sequential evaluation process are subject to judicial review under the "substantial evidence" standard. McCrea v. Commissioner of Social Security, 370 F.3d 357, 360-361 (3d Cir. 2004).

In an action in which review of an administrative determination is sought, the agency's decision cannot be affirmed on a ground other than that actually relied upon by the agency in making its decision. In Sec. & Exch. Comm'n v. ...


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